To see Denzel Washington star, produce and direct an adaptation of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize winning play Fences is to literally watch the superstar paint himself into a corner. I mean that in a good way, as this is a story that was originally set entirely in the backyard of a house in Pittsburgh. This means Washington had to come up with a way to creatively express this story on a cinematic level. That can prove to be difficult and I am one to call out play-to-film adaptations for their staginess, but the strength of acting can be a powerful thing and Fences certainly knows how to harness that power. Following much acclaim, multiple Oscar nominations (and a deserved win for Viola Davis), Fences now comes home to Blu-ray.
Set in the 1950s, Washington stars as Troy Maxson, a former baseball player for the Negro Leagues, who now works to make ends meet as a trash collector. Under his roof lives his wife Rose (Viola Davis) and his son Cory (Jovan Adepo). Troy is a man who loves to talk and crack wise, but is also embittered on the inside. His life has been challenging and his resolve is to treat his interactions with logic that plays to his strengths. It means he can have fun, but he also commands respect in a way that alienates him from some who are closest to him.
For much of the film’s 2+ hour runtime, Troy is in charge. Regardless of whether or not you enjoy the sometimes jocular, sometimes serious position he puts himself in, the man is a force of nature and no one can get in his way. Parts of the film take place on Friday evenings, where Troy has received his paycheck for the week and he goes on to talk in the backyard with is best friend Jim Bono (Stephen Henderson). As one can see from their conversations, Troy is in charge and it’s why he holds on tightest to the gin bottle they share between them while taking the time to relax into their weekend.
Washington (along with Davis) won a Tony Award in the 2010 revival of the play and while I must confess that I have not seen Fences on stage, one can gather that he does little to modulate that performance. That is not a knock, as it is a great performance. Given how easy it is for Washington to coast on his incredible abilities as a charismatic dramatic actor, this is an opportunity to see the actor challenge himself in ways that can draw the audience to have mixed views on his character. We see great monologues from him and they speak to a complex character who is holding back just as much as he lets out (and he lets out a lot).
Of course, if Washington is a force of nature, then Davis her own self-sustaining weather system. Sorry for the turns of phrase, but if this movie is going to overuse baseball metaphors, I need to do something to counter. Fences has not one, but two leads and Davis most certainly commands the screen when she’s given the opportunity to. In a film that largely explores black masculinity, Rose manages to go from a peacekeeper to taking on full authority in a way that could only be undercut by just how slavishly faithful the film is to the original screenplay.
That’s the tricky element to adapting Fences. Because the film is so indebted to its dialogue, careful planning needed to be done in an effort to expand this film cinematically. Washington deserves a level of credit with what he ended up crafting here. His shooting style allows for one to see what appears to be enough dynamism in the film’s presentation to convince a viewer that plenty is happening as far as various settings. At the end of it all though, we are still mostly hanging out in the backyard, with a few shots here or there around the house and nearby. The criticism doesn’t come from not seeing the film truly shakeup the original play by adding a wild arrangement of new sets, but from how it chooses to express what it needs to in an effort to be cinematically pleasing.
This is a mild knock, as the film’s by-default claustrophobic nature manages to capture the intensity required for most of the big face-offs seen between Troy and others (generally his son Cory). The only other element from the play that brings a mixed reaction is Mykelti Williamson as Gabriel, Troy’s brother. The character is mentally handicapped following an injury sustained during the war, but the portrayal of this character certainly feels better suited to the stage, compared to how it comes off here. Williamson sinks into the role, but the impression does not sit nearly as well as others.
Still, the acting across the board is pretty terrific, which is what you want and is practically handed to you when Denzel Washington chooses you to be in his cinematic Wilson play adaptation. Henderson’s portrayal of Troy’s faithful friend resonates. Adepo does his best to stand up to Washington. Russell Hornsby also stars as Troy’s older son and does well to handle the rhythms of such artful dialogue. While we are dealing with a drama, the delight of Fences is to watch these skilled performers bring these characters to life.
The devotion to the source material may bring about issues for some more familiar with the stage production, but Fences was hardly a struggle for me. Given the acclaim for the script, it would be hard to say much against how it tackles various themes, as they inform a story that needs to be overt to challenge the minimalist nature of its scope. Washington does fine by this in a film that rewards the actors over flashiness. Given how he doesn’t have to prove anything to anyone, that should be enough for a film that provides intensity and charm through expression and speech. Fences sits on sturdy ground.
Encoding: MPEG-4 AVC
Aspect Ratio: 2.39:1
Clarity/Detail: While the play kept things contained, the film expands the world and makes for a good amount of production design that is properly represented on this Blu-ray video transfer. One could still say there is a minimal level of design, but it allows for full focus on the house these characters occupy and all the details that come with it. The costumes, the bricks, the porches – it all comes through cleanly and clearly.
Depth: Given how staging is very important for a film like this, it should be of no surprise that the spacing plays fine in this film. The level of dimensionality is strong here, with no blurring where it wouldn’t be expected.
Black Levels: Black levels are deep and rich in the scenes taking place indoors. No signs of crush here, with the film doing plenty to properly work with its darker spaces when necessary.
Color Reproduction: While the film features a fairly neutral palette, the colors do play well when we see them. Nothing is overdone and it would be hard to say the browns and grays pop, but there are some key moments where the film allows color to highlight warmer and cooler moments very well.
Flesh Tones: Lots of great detail to be found in the facial textures. The number of close-ups provide an impressive level of clarity as far as really getting a good look at the faces we are watching.
Audio Format(s): English 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, English Audio Description
Subtitles: English, English SDH, French, Spanish
Dynamics: I was surprised to learn this film was arriving on Blu-ray with a 7.1 lossless soundtrack, as the film’s audio elements are fairly streamlined compared to something like Paramount’s Arrival, but I’m not going to complain. The many monologues come through very well, the use of storming sounds and other details play great as well.
Low Frequency Extension: The LFE channel really has little to do, aside from some little crashes that take place.
Surround Sound Presentation: The surround presentation does its job in filling out film’s world. The dialogue is obviously coming through the center channel, but the other aspects are balanced well enough and spread out when necessary.
Dialogue Reproduction: The most important aspect plays as well as it needs to, as everyone is heard loud and clear.
Sadly, Paramount didn’t pull out the stops for this release. Instead of anything deeper, we merely have several EPK interviews that hit the basic stuff. Some of it is informative, but who wouldn’t want to hear a Denzel commentary?
- Expanding the Audience: From Stage to Screen (HD, 8:53) – A discussion of how this film went from stage to screen and what was altered and kept.
- The Company of Fences (HD, 9:17) – A look at how much of the same cast joined onto this film and what filming the famous play allows for.
- Building Fences: Denzel Washington (HD, 6:56) – An all-too-brief discussion with Denzel about working as a director and star of the film.
- Playing the Part: Rose Maxson (HD, 6:57) – Viola Davis discusses what she brings to her Oscar-winning performance.
- August Wilson’s Hill District (HD, 6:25) – Given the Pittsburgh setting, this features goes over the shooting location.
- Digital HD Copy of the Film
Fences is another 2016 release that has really stuck with me. It may be lengthy and live on its dialogue and big performances, but that doesn’t do too much to take away from just how strong of a production this really is. The Blu-ray does a fine job of making the experience of this film work at home thanks to great video and audio presentations, along with a handful of featurettes that provide a somewhat limited level of insight. It all works well enough in providing a great Denzel/Viola experience.