Fences is an adaptation from the stage written by August Wilson (the playwright) and directed by/starring Denzel Washington (the star on stage). It is the stage talent taking the play and directly adapting the source material to the screen. And it feels like it takes place on a stage.
Sets, even the city streets filled with film reference shops like Rosebud beauty salon and the Grand Hotel, feel like sets. Artificiality is worn on the film’s sleeve, from its sets to its staging to the line delivery.
This is not to say that Fences is purely non-cinematic. Cinema, at least in part, comes out of the vaudeville theater tradition. Staging the film as if it were a play without any particular attention given to the camera is not too off base, per se. The film is a theater performance, and the art of it is in the words.
The setup of the film is a frenzied series of monologues from Washington’s head of the family character Troy Maxson. The delightful fury of his rambling stories and philosophies are the heart of the film. Washington’s directorial focus is on acting, and it shows. The camera is not telling, coverage serving merely a utilitarian purpose. The cinematography itself breaks basic rules at times—the 180 degree line, in one instance—yet it does not feel lazy or sloppy.
Fences is a movie with raw emotional power. Washington’s rational but oppressive family man protagonist is outspoken in a gloriously passionate way. His voice is the fuel that lights the fire, a rich history of adversity and working class struggle brimming around the surface of every conversation. The fiery “like you” monologue is testament to this acerbic and jaded worldview.
Troy feels he is owed something that he knows he will never receive. His self-sufficiency is his livelihood, and his son’s (Jovan Adepo) ignorance of that need for self-sufficiency is frightening to him. His pride is his solidarity and his downfall.
As much as this figure is the guiding light of the picture, the film is an ensemble picture. Adepo and Russell Hornsby, who play Troy’s sons, are pivotal spark plugs for Washington’s authority, going toe-to-toe with the veteran Oscar-winner satisfactorily. Mykelti Williamson is heartbreaking as a wounded vet whose mental disability causes him to see visions of the end times, even if his character is given so little to do in the plot.
Viola Davis is the rock in the center of the action. Her quiet performance opens up in flooring flourishes that are not just scene-stealing, but utterly transfixing.
Fences takes Wilson’s script and uses it as a foundation for a film full of compelling performances. The film lacks the cinema that an adaptation allows for. This said, it makes do without. It is a film of performance, and boy does it perform.
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)