Fences is an adaptation of August Wilson’s play about an African American man during the 1950s, Troy Maxson, who is bitter that he was denied the chance to play Major League Baseball, he believes because of his ethnicity. This film adaptation is directed by, and stars, Denzel Washington and the adapted screenplay was written by Wilson before his death in 2005.
This wasn’t Washington’s first time playing the part. He and Viola Davis lead the Broadway revival of the play in 2010. Now I wasn’t at all familiar with Wilson’s play at all, so I was going into the film essentially blind, and it was all new to me. With a story that looks at how failed dreams can hurt a family, eventually driving wedges between Troy and his son Cory and wife Rose (Davis). It’s a heavy story, but it’s well balanced by moments of humour, particularly as Troy talks with his friend Jim Bono, that make this feel like such an authentic and real depiction of life.
And having Denzel Washington and Viola Davis back in the roles of Troy and Rose is reason enough to see Fences. The performances across the board are superb, but Washington and Davis in particular are incredible. They are two of the best actors working today, and they absolutely show it here. Denzel’s is the flashier more attention grabbing performance, whilst Davis gives a far subtler one. However she is still able to powerfully explode in such a gut wrenching and emotional way. She is all but guaranteed an Oscar win, whilst Washington is in a two horse race with Casey Affleck.
And that’s before we even get to the supporting cast. Stephen Henderson as Jim Bono, Russell Hornsby as Lyons Maxson, and Mykelti Williamson as Gabriel Maxson are all very good as well, but it was young actor Jovan Adepo who really impressed me. It’s great to see a major, and award competitive film, with an all black cast. Particularly following last year’s Oscars So White controversy.
It’s also great that the film was able to use a screenplay that August Wilson wrote himself. As the writer of the original play there is clearly no one able to stay truer to the spirit of the play than the playwright. Given that Fences is almost completely dialogue it needs to be good. And it really is. You can see why this is such a well revered play, having won a Pulitzer Prize, as well as Tony awards for Best Play and Best Revival of a Play. Its Wilson’s dialogue that helps makes this film and the characters, and it translates excellently to the big screen.
What doesn’t translate quite so well with Fences is the fact that for large chunks of the film it feels very like a play. It isn’t hugely cinematic; instead it’s very static. It’s mainly confined to Troy’s back yard and kitchen. Washington does try to expand it at times, and there are occasions where he showcases a little more directorial flare, but it seems to me that he was more focused on giving a great performance, and getting them out of his cast, than in making this a Cinematic experience.
So whilst this may feel a lot like a play up on the big screen, when you get acting of this caliber it still has to be seen for that alone. Fences really is a great chance to see a classic play with some of the best acting talent around in Washington and Davis.