Fences is the big-screen adaptation of August Wilson’s play of the same name. The film is directed by Denzel Washington, who also stars alongside Viola Davis. Fences is a family drama set in 1950s Pittsburgh, where Denzel Washington plays Troy Maxson, an ex-baseball player turned garbage collector. The film follows Troy through various stages of his life, where he has several wrestles of principle with his wife, Rose (Davis) and his son, Cory (Jovan Adepo). The film is based on a recently revived Tony-winning stage, which itself originated from the 1980s version where James Earl Jones played the role of Troy Maxson. The play takes place over six acts, and the film is said to have almost replicated those acts, but with significantly better sets and the presence of cinematography.
Washington and Davis also starred in the stage play version of Fences, with Washington himself implying that acting in the film was almost secondary to directing it, having performed in the play more than a hundred times on Broadway. This and the fact that Fences has already garnered 4 Oscar nominations including Best Picture may suggest that he knows what he’s doing in that director’s chair. Even the trailer screams Oscar nomination. But with so much being said for how similar the film is to the play, can Fences truly excite on the big screen?
Where the story in its entirety isn’t particularly extraordinary relative to Hollywood films of today, Fences impresses and engages with outstanding performances by Denzel Washington as well as Viola Davis, who arguably plays a lead actress rather than a supporting one. As a viewer from the Far East who has never seen or heard of the stage play, August Wilson’s writing feels bombastic yet organic, punctuated with well-executed monologues and heartfelt dialogue that carries the viewer on an emotional ride from start to finish. Audience members who have a deep interest in theatre, historical American culture and pure and simple acting brilliance will be enthralled by this film.
Some build fences to keep people out
With three Oscars and several nominations between them, Washington and Davis look in shape to claim their third and first Academy Award with Fences. The ability to hold the viewer’s attention using dialogue alone has probably not been showcased better in any 2016 release. Both actors have performed the stage play many times, and it shows. The words come flowing out at will, but it never feels memorised and they never look bored. Rather, both use their command over the script to add layers of depth to their characters with deeper emotions, highlighted best with the popular still of Viola Davis’ award-winning snot. While Washington seems to be trailing Casey Affleck in terms of the awards buzz, it is with the utmost confidence that I say Washington deserves it more. But we can’t just forget the other supporting cast members, such as Troy and Rose’s son estranged son Cory, Troy’s mentally ill brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), and Troy’s best friend Bono (Stephen Henderson), all of whom give good nuanced performances, while playing major roles in the story’s progression. Having said that, it is the power and gravitas Washington brings to Troy Maxson and the mental strength that Viola Davis brings to Rose that create the movie magic here, and the two deserve all the praise in the world for that.
August Wilson’s script is a throwback to many themes that existed not only in 1950s America, but are still persistent in many parts of the world today. The struggles of American minorities to make a living while having dreams, the prevalent thoughts and assumptions of racial prejudice, and the perseverance of the ones who love but are not equally loved. The use of fences in Fences is an impactful metaphor for events that happen in the second half of the film, where the film reaches the bottom of its seemingly downward spiral from happy to tragic.
Standing in the same spot
Though the script and performances are thoroughly engaging, there are certain scenes and in particular, certain monologues that clearly indicate the film’s theatre roots. This is by no means a major flaw, rather an interesting take on a beloved stage play turned film. One would expect to see some lines shortened or modified to keep the dialogue snappy and clean, but as a casual viewer, I sometimes found myself appreciating only the performances while my attention to the dialogue was dwindling. At risk of exposing my occhiolism, I would assume that the dialogue was either not modified much at all, or modified from an even longer Broadway script.
Much like Manchester by the Sea, Fences also shows its most emotionally climatic scene in the trailer, which clearly had an impact from a marketing perspective, but doesn’t quite help the rest of the movie-watching experience due to the expectations it sets. The performances may have floored viewers, but the overall viewing experience itself, not as much.
Would Fences make it into my top 10 films of 2016? Probably not. But taking everything into account, Fences does everything it needed to do on its silver screen debut. It kept viewers glued to the screen, it provided a window into the lives of working-class African-American families of the 50s, and it sent a message of love, sacrifice, and human nature. Heck, it might even walk away with a few Oscars for all its trouble. Beyond all that, Fences has done only good things to further the career prospects of its cast and crew, also opening the door for more play-to-film adaptations in the future.
Overall Rating: 7.3/10