It is clear how much reverence Denzel Washington, the star and director of Fences, has for the original stage show (bringing much of the cast of the 2010 revival together for this screen adaptation). August Wilson maintains the sole writing credit on this movie despite being dead for more than 10 years, and Washington has repeatedly referred to him and his plays as the “American Shakespeare”.
Troy Maxson is as complex as any tragic Shakespearean figure. The king of his own small domain; a pre-Civil Rights, Negro League baseball player whose race deprived him of at least some opportunities; an ex-con proud of the little world he has built from himself (albeit with loans from his brother’s disability compensation), that still does not want his children to follow in his footstep. Ultimately, he is a man running from the Devil and the Grim Reaper, whose ego and need for dominance is ultimately his downfall.
Denzel Washington has had this character in his mind for a good seven years, and it shows. His trademark charisma is so much on display that you find yourself making excuses for Troy until the point he becomes near irredeemable. Bringing the revival cast makes this neighbourhood feel as lived in as it looks, from Stephen Henderson as Troy’s closest friend Bono to Russell Hornsby as estranged son Lyons.
But Viola Davis shines equally bright alongside Denzel as his long struggling wife Rose. Many actors will tell you that “acting is reacting”, and in the first half of this movie Viola Davis is a masterclass in reacting. It’s her matriarchal in this first act that makes the switch of power and focus in the second feel completely natural, and her big scene will likely win her that Oscar.
I have not seen Fences on stage, but my main takeaway would be that it is an extraordinary play. On screen, Fences is still an extraordinary play. Certainly Denzel Washington managed to find more ways to film a conversation than Mel Gibson did in Hacksaw Ridge, but there is an inherent way the wordy dialogue is written that commands a stage in a way the intermediary of cinema does not replace.
This is not a case of location either, the small spaces in which action takes place, with most of the second act taking place in the Maxson back garden. 12 Angry Men, A Streetcar Named Desire and Bug are all small location films that break away from their stage roots. In fact Fences shines most in quiet moments, and how Denzel naturally knows the right way to frame an actor for their performance. The moments that make it feels the most stagey are the moments most “cinematic”, like montage sections that feel like they are replacing an intermission, and abstract moments, especially towards the epilogue, that come across on the film as very cheesy. That could of course be a fault of the original stage show, like the disabled brother Gabriel who, while Mykelti Williamson gives an amazing performance, feels too much like the traditional “Holy Fool” stereotype to make me feel entirely comfortable, all culminating to the final scenes which don’t really help elevate all the film that came before it.
Most of us are never going to see this cast perform this play anywhere but on the screen, so as a document of this staging of Fences it more than earns its accolades. The first thing I wanted to do after seeing this film was to read more of August Wilson. That’s probably all that Denzel wanted.