Fences struggles to make the leap from the stage to the big screen, but is kept afloat by the powerhouse performances of its leads.
Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington) is a 53-year old garbage collector who lives in Pittsburgh circa the mid-1950s, along with his wife Rose (Viola Davis) and son Cory (Jovan Adepo). After his dreams of becoming a baseball player went unrealized when he was younger (due to Troy’s advancing age by the time professional baseball was racially integrated), Troy now spends his days working alongside his longtime friend Jim Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson) and providing care for his family – including, his now-adult son Lyons (Russell Hornsby) and his brother Gabe/Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), the latter of whom was left mentally impaired by a head injury that he suffered while fighting in WWII.
The weight of his responsibilities, coupled with the emotional baggage that Troy has accumulated from years of living in a world that seems intent on keeping him down (because of his race and background), begin to impact everything in Troy’s life from his relationship with Cory – a promising athlete in his own right who has a shot at being recruited to play college football – to his 18-years of (generally happy) marriage with Rose. As such, Troy is soon faced with the question: is he a protective father and caring husband… or has he gone from being the bullied to becoming a bully himself?
Fences is the third film directed by Denzel Washington and sees the two time Oscar-winner working both on-and-offscreen, like he did on his previous two feature-length helming efforts (Antwone Fisher and The Great Debaters). Washington previously appeared with his costar here, Viola Davis, in the 2010 Broadway revival of the original Pulitzer Prize-winning Fences play by the late August Wilson, netting both actors Tony Awards for the same roles that they are now playing in the movie adaptation – which is not to say that the film version reaches the same artistic heights as the work of theater that inspired it. Fences struggles to make the leap from the stage to the big screen, but is kept afloat by the powerhouse performances of its leads.
Based on an adapted screenplay that Wilson is credited for, Fences serves as a great acting showcase for Washington and Davis – providing a reminder that, on the off-chance that anyone had forgotten, both actors are more than capable of delivering emotionally-intense and raw performances when called for. Washington in particular handily carries many a scene, instilling his character Troy’s extended monologues and overtly-theatrical dialogue with the same naturalism as his less poetic (that is, more realistic) lines in the play-turned film. By comparison, Davis as Rose has less dialogue here but makes the most of her own moments in the spotlight, as well as those in which she responds silently to Troy’s words and/or his behavior (both the kindly and the harmful alike). Washington and Davis are clearly comfortable in their respective roles here, allowing them to infuse their performances with greater nuances and subtler expressions than they would’ve been able to do while playing their characters onstage.
Where Fences struggles is to make its story as poetic and stirring in execution in cinematic form as it is on the stage. Part of the problem is that the film takes a timely approach to some of the challenging topics that it examines, yet feels somewhat dated on some of the more complicated sociopolitical issues that it wrestles with (possibly as a result of when Wilson wrote his adapted script). The bigger issue is that Washington and his cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen (Far from the Madding Crowd) stage the proceedings in Fences using a basic visual approach and blocking/staging techniques that keep the focus on the performances, yet make the action feel flat and inert. Fences also struggles to create seamless transitions between the main acts of Wilson’s original play structure, making it all the more obvious when the film is just killing dead time between its central sequences.
Similarly, there are moments (dramatic beats, one-off lines) in Fences that play well on the big screen, but others that feel tonally at odds with the rest of the movie – suggesting that as director, Washington might have benefitted from being more willing to leave certain elements of Wilson’s original play behind for the film version. The character of Gabe especially comes off as a character who would work better in play form (moving in and out of scenes while commenting on the story through his dialogue), but on the big screen comes off as a clunky storytelling device more than anything else. Mykelti Williamson is perfectly solid as Gabe in terms of his performance, but the way that his character is written and integrated into the narrative proves too restrictive for him to leave an equally-good impression.
Other supporting cast members in Fences prove more memorable, thanks to their own strong performances and the quality of how their characters are written. Stephen McKinley Henderson, who is also reprising his role from the 2010 revival of the original play in the film version of Fences, has an easy-going dynamic and screen chemistry with Washington as Troy’s longtime friend/coworker Jim Bono. Meanwhile, Russel Hornsby and Jovan Adepo deliver worthwhile turns in the roles of Lyons (Troy’s adult son from another marriage) and Cory (Troy and Rose’s teenaged son), holding their own against their onscreen father (and real-life costar), in more ways than one.
Fences is a perfectly serviceable film based on an acclaimed play, but a more daring adaptation method would have been necessary for Wilson’s celebrated work of theater to resonate just as strongly in a different medium. The performances of its ensemble cast help to smooth out the wrinkles in the larger tapestry that is the movie, especially those of its leads (who are no doubt going to be landing multiple award nominations for their efforts here). Those who have long wanted to, but never gotten the chance to see the play Fences performed by big-name actors should be all the more appreciative that this filmed version exists – and may not mind that it essentially amounts to a handsomely-recorded version of the play.
Fences is now playing in U.S. theaters. It is 138 minutes long and is Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, language and some suggestive references.
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