Directed By: Denzel Washington
Written By: August Wilson
Starring: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Jovan Adepo, Russell Hornsby, Mykelti Williamson, Saniyya Sidney
Released: December 25, 2015
Hollywood is on an adaptation binge, transcribing the already-established written word into cinematography. Perhaps attributed to the recent success of John Green’s novels and The Hunger Games series — as well as, of course, Harry Potter and the myriad book-to-film adaptations that preceded — Hollywood has decided to peruse the literary space for inspiration for films. Of all the containers of literature to poke around in, plays can oftentimes be the most difficult for the director to capture: illustrating the raw emotion of a play (sans the literal stage direction) can make a film feel clunky and obtuse. There have been some successes, most notably James Foley’s Glengarry Glen Ross — a 1992 drama adaption of David Mamet’s play of the same name — and Tony Kushner’s ’90s drama Angels In America, but most other adaptations fail to capture the essence that makes a play so alluring, turning a captivating experiencing into an absolute snore fest. Denzel Washington captures that grit, that raw emotion of a play perfectly in his rendition of August Wilson’s Fences, even if the film still feels like a play.
Washington doesn’t man films too often: Aside from directing and starring in Fences, he’s directed 2002’s drama Antwone Fisher and 2007’s drama The Great Debaters, both of which have received generally favorable reviews, professing Washington as not only an apt actor but an apt director as well. His eye for dramatic positioning and poising actors to be their best selves in Fences is both enthralling and wonderfully chaotic. Regardless of the scene, Washington’s deftness with a camera and theatrics shines exquisitely throughout the entirety of the film, even if the whole of the film really takes place in one or two locales. (You can see the essence of the play bursting at the seams in these moments.) Even still, the cinematography accentuates the emotion the script so begs for, pulling you ever closer to Wilson’s world.
The film creates an atmosphere that oscillates from inviting to terrifying within seconds.
Denzel Washington and Viola Davis are clearly the stars, extending their talents as far as possible, looking to clutch the probable Oscar nominations. Never mind the hopeful award show recognition, the acting in Fences is superb. Washington uses Wilson’s play to construct a believable family filled with drama that realistically ebbs and flows, twists and turns; the emotion is palpable, tangible, pervasive. Davis and Washington play the mother and father of this family and their relationship is plausible, genuine. There is an air of erratic tension, ardent adoration, and gripping heartbreak between the two of them and their on-screen chemistry is excellent. The other actors aren’t as pronounced as Washington and Davis’ boisterousness, but their subtly strengthens the grandiosity of the two main stars; the side actors’ interactions with the two mains are engrossing and emotionally heart wrenching. The rapport between Washington and Stephen McKinley Henderson (Jim Bono) is heartwarming and offers respite, but even this relationship stands on the precipice of collapse as the film goes on. Fences is damn powerful as a play, and the film manages to exert that same power with such gusto, such adroitness the impact is palpable.
The film follows Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington), a waste collector and father of two — Cory (Jovan Adepo) and Lyons Maxson (Russell Hornsby) — living with his wife, Rose (Viola Davis). It’s 1950’s Pittsburgh and Troy is fervently entrenched in the belief that racial discrimination barred him from his chance at hitting the home run in the major leagues. Crippled by his age, a bout with illness dubbed the Grim Reaper, and his blatant alcoholism, Troy — growing ever delusional in his old age, stuck in perpetual baseball mode, pushing well into his fifties — is exasperated with his stagnation and looks to alleviate his frustrations. Narratively, Fences isn’t aberrant or complex; the plot is rather simple in terms of its premise. It’s the skill of the actors and the brilliance in the writing that carries the film. The moments where characters are yelling, the moments where characters are pensive, the moments where characters are telling stories all create an atmosphere that oscillates from inviting to terrifying within seconds.
More than just that, however, are the themes of the play that are the most compelling. The family’s relationship physically represented in the fences Troy and Rose incessantly talk about is both beautiful and devastating. The only real quibble with the film is the very last moment that inches toward celestial/quasi-religious territory that doesn’t align with the overall themes and sort of disrupts the pace of the film.
Nevertheless, Washington crafts a beautifully destructive film about a father both disappointed in himself and afraid of his child becoming better than him, and a mother who’s given up everything for her family. Centering on the plight of this family, with accents of ethnic struggle to enhance the turmoil, Fences illustrates that no family is perfect, regardless of how relationships may seem at face value.