Adapted from August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning stage play of the same name, Fences is something that has guided stars Denzel Washington and Viola Davis to some of the most noteworthy accolades of both their careers, and in film form is expected to continue this streak come Oscar time. It also arrives at the tail end of what some pundits have called the single greatest year for African American cinema, and looking back on this year as a whole, it’s pretty hard to disagree there.
Putting aside the curious rise and fall of Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation, arguably the most acclaimed film of the entire year remains Moonlight, and in this reviewer’s opinion, for good reason, too (though of course the complete extent of African American film in 2016 isn’t limited to this handful of examples, I’m just trying to paint a general portrait of the current filmic landscape here). And yet, putting aside all of the cultural significance and how well it was (or wasn’t) adapted from a stage show, Fences as a standalone viewing experience no doubt has some powerful and engaging sections and a fair amount of commendable traits to boot, but also falls short in a number of key areas.
The substance of the plot and story in Fences appears to be a direct 100% stage-to-screen adaptation, which centers on a lower class African American family living in 1950s Pittsburgh, PA. The patriarch of said family is Denzel Washington’s Troy Maxson (a role which Washington had played a whopping 114 times on stage), a former baseball prodigy turned garbage man who lives with his beleaguered yet devoted wife Rose (Viola Davis) and resentful son Cory (Jovan Adepo), whose own rise to a prominent football career mirrors Troy’s own past, of which Troy is determined to have his son follow in the same disappointing footsteps, even if unknowingly so.
These three, as well as a handful of peripheral characters in Troy’s life, make up the cast of Fences, and each one is performed to absolute perfection, even if Washington’s own scenery-chewing borders on caricature at times, albeit ever so briefly. In particular, Viola Davis has been garnering a ton of awards buzz for her role herein, and I personally can’t disagree. We can debate the category position of leading or supporting all day long, but the point is that she takes this role and essentially walks away with the entire film all her own, upstaging just about everyone else in this admittedly limited ensemble. In a film packed with strong performances throughout, the fact that she manages to stand out here is all the more impressive.
Speaking to its strengths and weaknesses as a standalone film and disregarding its existence as an adaptation, Fences doesn’t really have much about it that makes it feel particularly… “cinematic” I think would be the right word here. Whereas many brilliant films from the past have been based on plays, the ones we remember liking the best almost always have a little something special within them that sets them apart as singular film experiences and less so as merely a filmed version of a stage play, something which Fences unfortunately doesn’t overcome very well.
Even the made for television/HBO miniseries Angels in America had interesting stylistic flourishes and an urgent sense of pace to it, whereas this film merely depicts the events of the show without ever adding much to it. As a director, Denzel Washington certainly gives the material room to breathe and does a fine enough job getting across the pathos and weight of the text, but never manages to add anything else beyond that. Which isn’t to say he necessarily should, since the film functions well enough on its own. But compared to how we’ve seen similar adaptations play out beforehand to much greater success, one can’t help feeling like there was an appreciable amount of wasted potential here.
Having never personally seen Fences performed live onstage, I can’t speak to the experience of seeing this material in such a format – an experience that I have little doubt is positively riveting – but in film form, seeing it all play out can, frankly, be a bit exhausting at times. Like most non-musical stage shows, this is a very talk-heavy story, and for some reason, the pacing of the dialogue sequences (at least for the first hour or so of the film) is fairly uneven and jumbled.
Heck, the first thirty minutes of the film basically function as one extended monologue by Denzel Washington as he wanders between all the important locales of the film and is briefly interrupted by any one of the supporting players. In hindsight, most of the first act of this film plays out like that – endless amounts of soliloquizing without much movement (whether literal or narrative) and it’s all noticeably shoddy in a few places. Luckily, the strengths of the performances and the source material itself are able to overcome the unusual plotting, but it’s something that holds the film back from being as complete and singular of an adaptation as it perhaps could or should have been.
At the end of the day, Fences is a flawed but ultimately rewarding viewing experience. If you’re a big fan of the original stage play or just want to see this cast of acting giants performing their hearts out for two plus hours, then you’ll get your money’s worth here. Just don’t expect said acting to be attached to a phenomenally well-crafted or polished narrative and you’ll be just fine. This is an actor’s piece above all else, and in that respect it gets the job done if you know what to look for.