As purely a thespian venture, the Denzel Washington starring and directed Fences is an applaudable homer. Performed with true fire in the belly, this adaptation of August Wilson’s 1983 Tony and Pulitzer Prize Award winning play of the same name unfurls a harrowing American experience of familial tension between patriarch Troy Maxson, his wife Rose, mentally impaired brother Gabriel and sons Lyons and Cory.
The distinctly African American drama peels back time to 1950s Pittsburgh where a family must adapt to Jim Crow-era race relations and the imposing Troy, an occasionally cheery father figure with dark alcoholic outbursts. An ex-con with a legendary baseball swing, Troy lives a menial life of providing for him and his, working as a garbage man to bring home just enough each week to put food on the table and fire to the hearth.
As Troy, Washington is simply explosive. His transformation throughout the picture from a bright humdinger of a man, known for his larger-than-life anecdotes and fast-lip, to a cruel though honor-bound lunk is in no small part due to Wilson’s zesty tome of a screenplay. But the way Washington’s presence commands attention; the seductive nature of the way he weaves his tall tales; the effortless grin and locomotion cadence; makes for a powerful automaton of a Good Man. As he sinks into the bottle, butting heads with those who mean the most to him, it becomes as hard to watch as it is to look away. The performance from start to finish is nothing short of stunning and should be the standard bearer for great leading men turns in 2016.
Viola Davis co-stars against the rarely better Washington and has no trouble measuring up to the high bar her director/co-star sets. Through moments of silent ferocity and bitter humility, explosive sadness and strong-chinned dignity, Rose struggles through a similarly diverse bevy of emotional turmoil and Davis, through thick and thin, proves up to the task. She’s welcome to a snotty Oscar reel shot or two but it’s these stoic moments that define the character and Davis finds strength conveying both.
The supporting cast of characters, which includes Troy’s slick but untrustworthy musician son Lyons (Russell Hornsby), his best friend and co-worker Jim Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson), his other ambitious but strong-willed son Cory (Jovan Adept) and his shell-shocked brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson) who is not able to care for himself, each bring a level of detail and specificity to their character that serves to make Wilson’s superb writing pop more. The way they circle around Troy and pull different elements out of him makes each a catalyst for Washington to pivot around while also providing some interesting familial context of their own.
Fences’ biggest malady lies in its roots. From end to end, Fences feels like a play. As a single-setting endeavor, there’s not much cinematic to the picture which moves from the interior of a house, to the yard and, on the rare encounter in the street. You feel the original staging of this theatrical adaptation right up to the very last shot which has the sun beaming down as if from the catwalk. The setting proves an indivisible part of Fences‘ DNA but Washington fails to differentiate the mediums because of an unwillingness to experience from a directorial standpoint. For a play that feels so alive and so risky, the direction fails to have much life. In playing it safe, Washington fails to prove the need for a filmic adaptation (outside of the obvious fact that he wants to share the story with a wider, more centrist audience than would be willing to stumble into the theater.)
As a director, one understands Washington’s unwillingness to move too far away from the source material, which is much more focused on the words, the characters and the personal transformations than it is on any sort of set piece, but that being said, the experience of watching Fences does feel almost identical to watching an excellent staging of an outstanding piece of theater.
CONCLUSION: Denzel Washington and Viola Davis (and the rest of the cast) are simply outstanding in the powerfully acted and supremely written ‘Fences’, a 1950s melodrama about a struggling African American family, even if the movie itself feels much more like theater than a film; the experience is stirring and important nonetheless.