Director: Denzel Washington (The Great Debaters, Antwone Fisher)
Writer: August Wilson
Producers: Scott Rudin, Todd Black, Denzel Washington
Starring: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen Henderson, Jovan Adepo, Russell Hornsby, Mykelti Williamson
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running time: 138 min.
Adapting a stage play for the cinema is always going to come with the difficult task of transitioning the things that work in one medium to another. People may simply think that if something can work on the stage then it’ll work just as well on the screen, but that isn’t the case, and there is a reason why they are two different things. Each has their benefits, but making a successful film based on a play isn’t just an easy matter of bringing the material and doing the exact same thing over again. Yet that’s essentially what Denzel Washington has tried to do with Fences, and inevitably the film buckles under those constraints. Only the third film that the acclaimed actor has made as a director (after 2002’s Antwone Fisher and his last, 2007’s The Great Debaters), Washington certainly had familiarity with August Wilson’s beloved Pulitzer Prize-winning material when he decided to bring it to the big screen; the actor won a Tony Award of his own for starring in the 2010 revival of the production, to go along with the play’s Tony for Best Revival (and the many that it won during its first run on stage in 1987).
Watching Fences, the film, you can unmistakably see how this was made by someone who was an actor first and a director second – like the theater, it prioritizes the actors above all else, and doesn’t really afford much in the way of cinematic virtues. Washington is accompanied on screen by Viola Davis, who also won a Tony for that 2010 revival of the play, and got one of her first major roles in film from her director in Antwone Fisher, years before her cinematic breakout with her Oscar-nominated role in Doubt. The two star as Troy and Rose Maxson, a working class couple in 1950s Pittsburgh who eke out their day to day living while raising their son Cory (Jovan Adepo) and finding happiness in one another, even if they can’t find it in the world around them. Troy is dissatisfied with his work hauling garbage every day, and drowns his sorrows and regrets in the bottle, and Rose stands by him as the picture portrait of a typical American family of the era. Troy loves to wax philosophical to anyone who will listen, namely his friend and co-worker Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson) about all of his many opinions on the world around him. It’s a role full of meaty monologues and aggressive behavior for Washington to sink his teeth into and he does just that, capturing with gusto this domineering, narcissistic father who still has his charms, as he finds sincere moments of levity in the genuine love shared between Troy and Rose.
Nevertheless, watching Fences is like watching a train running toward an inevitable collision. Every moment feels like it’s building towards a major confrontation, with Troy as the ticking time bomb in the middle of it all. With all of the pressure that he’s put on Cory, and how taken for granted Rose is, there’s only one way that this can go, and of course it’s acting fireworks when the big blow-ups begin. Davis is a force to be reckoned with as she exposes this long-suffering woman who has stood by her man for so many years, and isn’t sure what for given the bitter, angry man that he’s turned into. Fences certainly makes itself worth the price of admission based on the backs of these two central performances, but beyond that Washington doesn’t bring a whole lot to the table. As a director, the work is staid and very constricted by its faithfulness to the material, which Wilson had adapted himself before his death in 2005. That material is certainly befitting of the stage, as it is filled with those lengthy diatribes for the actors to really lash into, as well as its subtle as a sledgehammer themes and metaphors. As Troy works on building a fence in his backyard, Bono may as well be winking directly at the audience as he says “Some people build fences to keep people out, and other people build fences to keep people in.”, just in case you couldn’t pick that up. Simply put, Fences just isn’t as acclimated to the screen as it is the stage, and the fact that Washington doesn’t feel any need to make adjustments for the transition shows a lack of insight into what makes each medium work on their own individual terms.