When adapting a play for the screen, there’s always the risk that the result will feel stage bound. Movies are uniquely visual, whereas plays, more often than not, rely heavily on words to convey ideas. In his adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize winning August Wilson play Fences, director and star Denzel Washington probably felt the pressure to bring a cinematic style to a stage production that takes place entirely in the yard of a house. Washington moved several of the scenes inside the house, and a few of the 140-minutes of run time take place in other spaces: a bar, the walk home from a hard day’s work. Aside from the real shooting locations, the outcome is reminiscent of a filmed play. But when the words being spoken are as brutal and honest as August Wilson’s, and the performances are as emotionally pulverizing as they are in Fences, the fact that the movie feels stagy is much less important.
Fences is the sixth entry in Wilson’s “Pittsburgh Cycle,” a ten-part series of plays examining the African-American experience in every decade of the 20th century. Set in the mid-1950s, Fences tells the story of Troy Maxson, a former Negro League baseball player who now works as a garbage collector. Considered too old for Major League Baseball by the time the league finally integrated in 1947, Maxson deals with feelings of resentment and anger at the racist power structure that robbed him of his dream. Maxson’s wife, Rose, their son, Corey, and other friends and family members struggle with Troy’s emotional ups and downs.
But Troy’s emotions, and Washington’s virtuoso interpretation of them, are the most fascinating thing about his film. Fences presents a character study of such complex emotional depth, it leaves the audience just as conflicted in our own feelings about Troy as his family and friends are in the movie. Quite frankly, Troy is a son of bitch and his words and actions are constantly testing everyone around him. Troy is a charming son of a bitch, though, so, until we arrive on the scene, his friends and family have had trouble staying mad at him for long.
It’s a testament to Wilson’s writing, and to Washington’s acting, that on multiple occasions the stories Troy tells become visually evocative. At one point, Troy gives anecdotes of his misguided youth in which he did prison time for robbery and muggings. Washington paints a picture almost as clear as if he had included a flashback of those events.
There are also moments when Troy’s potentially violent nature come to the surface. Troy’s son, Corey, has a dream of playing college football, and he’s willing to give up just about everything in the way of free time to pursue it. Troy is determined to keep Corey from wasting his life chasing sports, a path that led to so much heartbreak for himself. The confrontational, often antagonistic father/son dynamics at work feel genuine in a way that cut across all racial and socioeconomic dividing lines. Actor Jovan Adepo, playing Corey, holds his own opposite Washington in these emotionally charged scenes.
In fact, Washington surrounded himself only with actors who would challenge him to bring his best. As Troy’s wife of eighteen years, Rose, Viola Davis puts on screen a performance that will inspire up-and-coming actors for decades. Davis uses a subtlety of characterization that makes you forget she hasn’t always been Rose. She spends a good deal of her time on screen simmering, keeping her emotions just under the surface until she explodes in a devastating scene with Washington. Both actors display the consequences of a deep betrayal after decades of a life lived together.
Supporting these two leads are Mykelti Williamson as Gabe, Troy’s older brother, and Stephen McKinley Henderson as Troy’s friend Jim Bono. Gabe was left mentally impaired after being wounded in World War II, and Troy looks after him. The disability payments that go to Troy for the care he gives Gabe allowed Troy to purchase a house for his family. It’s another bruise to Troy’s very fragile ego. Williamson plays Gabe with a gentle giant quality that only goes astray in the final moments of the film. Gabe constantly carries a trumpet around his neck so that he can be ready to signal Saint Peter when judgement day comes. In the final scene, we see Gabe finally blow his horn, but the moment comes off as unintentionally funny as Gabe struggles in the first few attempts.
The weakness in that last scene is compounded by Washington’s (and his cinematographer’s) decision to give the final minutes of Fences a sentimental glow that is strikingly different from the hard realism of the rest of the film. It’s a moment that clashes with everything that’s come before it. That weakness aside, as a brutal, unflinching character study, and as an example of actors at the pinnacle of their craft, Fences is a satisfying and challenging piece of art. It’s also a tribute to the beautiful work of the late August Wilson.
Why it got 4 stars:
- What Fences lacks in visual flair due to the nature of the source material, it more than makes up for in acting fireworks. The performances of Washington and Davis in particular are stunning.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- My partner Rachel brought to my attention that the moment I found unintentionally funny at the very end of Fences, Gabe struggling to blow his horn, was intended to be at least a little funny. If that's the case, I think it's a misplaced attempt at humor. The tone of the moment completely clashes with the rest of the movie.