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.
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.