Already a Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning play, Denzel Washington's film adaptation of August Wilson's Fences is going to add some accompanying award hardware to the roster this year, most notably in the acting categories. This, even as it struggles, often unsuccessfully, to distinguish itself from its stage roots.
Long a passion project for Washington, who also directs and works from a script adapted by Wilson himself, Fences' stage-driven nature is readily apparent from word one, and is both a benefit and a detriment to the resulting film. Full of long scenes between a handful of characters in a small number of contained, easily-rendered-on-stage locations, this limits the scope.
Behind the camera, Washington and cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen (The Girl on the Train), do what they can to make Fences cinematic, but without resorting to distracting affectations and visual pyrotechnics that would clash with the subject, there's only so much to do. There's nothing particularly egregious, but it feels very same-y, and the few times they attempt to make it “cinematic” are noticeably out of place.
As scenes go on too long—again, an element easier forgiven on stage than in film—things become, not stale, but familiar. By the end you feel like you've been there before—you can almost feel the camera operator bumping into the walls and physical constraints the setting demands. The result is that Fences feels more like watching a recording of a stage production, not necessarily a movie.
But the dialogue sings and cuts as the characters banter and bicker. Set in Pittsburg in the 1950s, Fences follows Troy Maxon (Washington), former Negro League baseball player working as a garbage man and trying to provide for his family—his wife, Rose (Viola Davis), grown son, Lyons (Russell Hornsby), young son, Cory (Jovan Adepo), and his brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), suffering from head trauma from fighting for a country that doesn’t want him in World War II.
It's in the lead performances where Fences shows its true strength. Though he starts out big and broad, playing back row—which, admittedly, fits with Troy's braggadocios persona, but again, feels overly stagey—Washington reins it in to deliver his best performance in years in a role originated on-stage by James Earl Jones. Washington won a Tony for his turn as Troy in 2010 and, at least initially in the film, plays more to a live audience rather than one that can see his face in close up shots.
Bitter he aged out of baseball before black men could play in the major leagues, Troy is stubborn and fiercely proud of being able to provide for his family. All traits that make him who he is and, in true tragedy fashion, lead to his downfall. Certainly penned in by the racial prejudices—which help make Fences feel vital and relevant in the current cultural landscape—he steadfastly refuses to capitulate to his own role in his circumstances, primarily a 15-year stint in prison. Flawed and complex in very real fashion, and relatable in ways that aren’t always easy to witness, Troy is an important character to have on the screen right now. Maddening and tragic and monstrous and frail, he dreams big and small, struggles with the realities of his life, and revisits his own disappointments on his wife and children.
But as good as Denzel Washington becomes, he pales in comparison to Viola Davis. As Troy’s long-suffering wife, Rose, who loves him unconditionally despite his failings, she is nothing short of phenomenal. There's already a battle raging whether she should be up for best actress or best supporting actress categories (I'd argue Fences is in many ways her damn story), but none of that matters because she's breathtaking. There are moments in Fences where just watching her face sucked all the air out of my lungs. Whatever acclaim she receives isn't going to be enough.
The reverence for the source materials is evident, at times to a fault. But while Fences doesn’t blaze any new trails as either cinema or a stage-to-screen adaptation, with a combination of poignant material and two blistering performances, it tells a difficult, vital, uniquely American story. [Grade: B]