‘Fences’ Transcends Its Stage Origins—Barely

Bringing a play to the screen is always a tricky proposition. Plays have different limitations compared to film: the scenes usually have to occur in a single geographic area, and it’s not easy to do a quick cut between scenes, unlike in movies. But plays are also temples to the power of words. Characters can have the kinds of drawn-out conversations that we recognize from real life but rarely see in films. Like most filmed adaptation of stage plays, the new adaptation of August Wilson‘s “Fences” fails to replace the grammar of the stage with that of film, but it’s saved by a pair of exemplary performances.

“Fences” stars Denzel Washington (who also directs) as Troy Maxson, a garbage collector living in a predominately African-American neighborhood in Pittsburgh. His wife, Rose (Viola Davis), keeps the house in order and does most of the parenting for their high school-aged son, Cory. Troy also has a son from a previous relationship, Lyons, who drops by on paydays to borrow money.

Troy spends most of his days chatting with Bono, another garbage collector on the same route. It’s immediately clear that Troy is filled with resentment for those who have denied him opportunities based on the color of his skin. Troy and Bono both throw the trash in the back of the garbage truck while another man drives the truck, but all of the fleet’s drivers are white, whereas many of the trash collectors are black. Troy gets himself in trouble with his boss and the union when he complains about the lack of African-American drivers.

But even as Troy lodges legitimate complaints about missed opportunities, we also get the sense that he’s thrown away enough possibilities on his own. Troy used to be a great baseball player, but he says the major leagues wouldn’t take him because he was African-American. It’s later revealed that Troy was imprisoned for a number of years, and his failure to get into the majors may have had more to do with him being too old by the time he was released, rather than his skin color.

Denzel Washington hasn’t really developed any kind of style with “Fences.” The compositions are pedestrian at best, and he never finds a way to create a sense of energy when the characters are in the middle of long monologues. But he does extract great performances from himself and the other actors, which saves the film.

Washington is one of our greatest living actors, but he’s been stifled in recent years with a series of action heroes and inspirational roles. It’s rare for him to play a complicated man, neither good nor bad, but his unbridled charisma allows to be incredibly loathsome without sacrificing the audience’s sympathy. Washington imbues Troy with a sense of jealousy toward his son Cory, but it never becomes too overt. At times it seems like Troy is trying to destroy Cory’s future, but at other points he seems genuinely concerned with preventing his son from making the same mistakes he made decades ago.

Viola Davis is an appropriate sparring partner for Washington. At first, Rose just seems like a housewife who’s content to do whatever is necessary to keep her husband happy, but she later stops being coy, and expresses her own needs and desires. Davis is an expert at displaying raw emotions without ever slipping into histrionics.

The performances are also aided by the fact that August Wilson adapted his own play for the screen. His screenplay was completed prior to his 2005 death, and the words never have the feel of coming straight from the stage. Troy and his family speak in a vernacular that seems filmic and truer to life than the kind of stylization that would normally be found in a play.

Washington’s small-scale direction makes “Fences” seem slight; it’s a companion piece to the play rather than a replacement for it. But the film’s exemplary cast makes it easy to forget its faults and appreciate their craft instead.

Watch the trailer below:

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