On August 19, 2012, the British director Tony Scott, the brother of Ridley Scott, and the director of David Bowie's best film performance, in The Hunger, stopped his car on the Vincent Thomas Bridge in Los Angeles, jumped from the bridge, fell, hit the water, and died.
During the previous decade (the 2000s), Scott had been Denzel Washington's main director, and this close collaboration resulted in one masterpiece, Man on Fire, and several box-office hits. (In the 1990s, Washington worked primarily with Spike Lee.) In the Scott period, Washington usually played a hardworking professional with a complicated past or a personality flaw. In the end, the character overcomes his flaw and his foe because he is, ultimately, a good person and the consummate professional.
After Scott's death, Washington's career took a new direction. He stopped playing complicated characters and started shooting lots and lots of people. This is the Antoine Fuqua period. And judging from the artistic value of the films he has made in this decade with Fuqua and other like-minded directors, it's not unfair to say that Washington's respectable Hollywood career jumped with Scott to its death.
Recently, while leaving a screening of the solid and engaging film adaptation of August Wilson's play Fences, which was directed by Washington himself, a man walking behind me said to the woman walking next to him that this is not the kind of Denzel Washington film he likes. It's too act-y, it's all about the Academy Awards. Clearly, he wanted Washington to shoot more and talk less. But Fences has no guns and a whole lot of talking about life—it deals with failed dreams, race relations in mid-century America, marital problems, parenting problems, working-class problems, drinking problems, problems with debts, mental health, and, ultimately, death. What might kill the character Washington plays in Fences, Troy Maxson, is not a car chase or a shoot-out, but blocked arteries to the heart. He is a normal guy with a very standard suite of personal and social issues.
The man behind me was correct: It is likely that Washington will be recognized by the Academy for this performance. And thank God! It is good to see a great actor take a break from his fall into the abyss of crap and produce something of social, artistic, and cultural value. The Academy will probably also recognize Viola Davis, who plays Rose Maxson, Troy's wife.
Troy is a proud and loud black man who missed his opportunity to become a rich and famous baseball player because racism locked up talented black athletes in the cash-starved Negro League until the 1950s. Instead, he became a Pittsburgh garbage collector.
Though the film is about Troy—the man of the house—the film eventually centers on the inner world of his wife. Troy has desires and broken dreams he can go on and on about, but Rose has desires and broken dreams that are never spoken. They are not in the film, nor in the original play, both of which were written by August Wilson (he worked on the script while living in Seattle, his last city). Does she love another man? Did she want to run a bank? Was she once good at singing or mathematics? Did she come from a good family but married a loser out of love? The power of Davis's performance grows from the silence.
The second half of the film is almost all about Rose. Washington provides us with the power of a theatrical performance (long and verbally dazzling monologues), but because Rose's inner world is mostly unwritten, it opens us to the power of a cinematic performance. We must see her past and her longings and her broken dreams in her face, in the way she hangs wet clothes on a line, in the way she bears her husband's stubbornness and pride, in the way she rises from bed in the middle of the night to answer a phone call, in the way she looks when she tells her husband in a few words that his mistress has died in childbirth. Davis is cinema in action. She is what makes Fences a movie.
While the two leads will likely get acting nominations, Washington should also receive a nomination for best director. In Rose, Fences reveals so beautifully and effectively the quiet power of cinema.