You know what Fences is? It’s almost two and a half hours of good actors speaking good lines, acting their hearts out. August Wilson’s muscular play gives meaty dialogue to its cast, and Denzel Washington and Viola Davis ensoul their roles grandly. That’ll be enough for most audiences; anyone hoping for something more cinematic or filmic, unfortunately, will have to look elsewhere.
Washington casts himself in the iconic role of Troy Maxson, a Pittsburgh-area trash collector, once a star player in Negro League baseball. After fathering his first child, Lyons, he received a lengthy stint in prison for an unintentional murder, forcing Lyons to raise himself. At the start of Fences, he is now married to Rose (Davis), with whom he has a son, Cory. Cory has the talent and ability to make it in football, but Troy, convinced Cory will face the same racism and defeat as he, tries to force him out of it.
Theatre adaptations always run the risk of inviting the ‘it’s too stagey’ criticism, which I find a little bizarre. (Not the criticisms of staginess; the staginess itself.) There are plenty of non-stage adaptations tethered to one location, that maintain a cinematic feel. Twelve Angry Men famously plays out in a cramped jury room, recently The Hateful Eight made use of a single, spacious cabin—hell, Rodrigo Cortés’s Buried takes place entirely within a coffin, and is never less than thrilling.
Maybe it’s the fact that many plays lend themselves to asides and monologues. Troy Maxson is an iconically fast-talking man. He, through Washington, of course, gets out so many words a minute that if you’re not already familiar with Wilson’s dialogue, you could have some trouble keeping up.
As a director, Washington didn’t make much of a impression in his first two features; he has a story to tell, he tells it, and then it’s done. Fences is no different. Washington clearly has great respect and reverence for Wilson’s play, which seems to limit him from breathing too much cinematic life into it. His (too-)artificial lighting and plain staging makes you feel, at far too many points, that you’re watching a PBS broadcast of Great Performances, instead of cinematic art.1 Add in a few very questionable music cues, and Washington betrays a style that, while not exactly grating, does underwhelm. The film needed the hand of a Jonathan Demme, or even a John Patrick Shanley.
I will give Washington a high compliment, though: he excellently directs himself, and never overplays his hand. Troy Maxson is a loud, boisterous character, and it would have been easy for any actor to play him too broadly and veer into caricature—especially with himself as his only restraint. Washington’s performance remains grounded; Maxson is in a prison of his own limitations and failings as a man and father, and Washington layers them beautifully. It’s actually one of his most dazzling screen performances. The whole cast is outstanding, as you might expect, since five of them are reprising their roles from the 2010 Broadway revival.
So let’s be honest: for most people, a film like this is about the language, performances, and accessing a window looking onto extraordinary characters. Fences is very good for this. But as a film—that is, a cinematic experience—it comes up short. Overall I guess you could say I’m on the fence about it oh god sorry I’m so sorry I don’t know why I did that I didn’t mean to do it I hate myself.