Fences Review: Amazing Performances and A Tremendous Script Merge in A Phenomenal Feature
Fences was first performed on Broadway in 1983, won the Pulitzer Prize in drama four years later, and its author, the late August Wilson, is one of the most celebrated playwrights of the last century. Despite this, a film adaptation of the material has long been considered impossible. Fences is after all, mostly dialogue framed within long scenes. This may work very well on stage, but it is far less enticing in film. After all, in a year where we saw the Airport Battle in Captain America: Civil War, the world bending-action of Doctor Strange, and the visual detail of The Jungle Book, what could a slowly paced play brought to the big screen have to offer?
A lot, as it turns out.
Fences is not as cheerful as La La Land, nor is it as enticing as Rogue One. In fact, anyone going to see this film should know that Fences is heart-wrenching experience that will leave you shaken and somber. During an extremely dour scene, a young couple exited my theater and never returned. It is not an easy-going experience, so do not be fooled by the comedic, and expertly performed opening scenes. Fences is a tragedy when taken at face value.
But before I dive into the depths of the fantastic script, I must praise both the direction and the performances. Denzel Washington stars and directs in the best way possible: he allows August Wilson to tell the story he wrote. Most adaptations are bound to depart from the source material, and this is not necessarily a bad thing: any story, at times, must be modified in order to translate to the big screen.
But there are certain stories that should be untouched when translated, and I believe Fences is one of those stories. Denzel Washington didn’t try to turn Fences into a sweeping epic so that he could deliver a truly ‘cinematic’ experience, instead he allowed the source material to shine through, and delivered a simple story: a group of people talking in a backyard. The dialogue is sharp and flows fast, but is still just that: dialogue.
Given the slow pace and suburban setting, this material would fall flat if it were not for the fantastic performances from every cast member. This is one of the rare instances in which nearly every single actor blew me away, as Stephen Henderson, Jovan Adepo, Russell Hornsby, Mykelti Williamson, and Christopher Mele all contributed excellent performances. But at the end of the day, the two shinning performances in this film come from its leads: Denzel Washington as Troy Maxson and Viola Davis as Rose Maxson. These two carry the heartbreak and weight of the source material on their shoulders, and do so with incredible ability.
The reason why these performances are so outstanding, is because many of them have stepped into these roles before. In 2010, Fences was revived on Broadway, and the roles were filled in by many of the same actors who appear on film. The actors know the source material well, and it shows in their performances.
The true genius and heartache of the story comes from August Wilson, and the play that he wrote over thirty years ago. Fences is set in 1950’s Pittsburg, just before the Civil Rights Movement took the nation by storm. It touches on the struggles and setbacks that African-Americans faced on the eve of progress. At several points in the story, characters are held back from accomplishing a goal, and the reason for their failure almost always points back to their same condition: they were black in the 1950’s.
And while Fences does focus on the life of African-Americans during this period, it also centers on something else: the dynamic between father and son. Wilson portrays the relationship between the older and new generations as one of beauty and pride, but also one of infection and fear. The son learns and mirrors the father in Fences, and this leads to a series of difficulties, hardships, and successes.
Wilson presents a world to us at the beginning of the story, and then slowly peels it back. By doing this he reveals his themes of his work, while also granting time to warm up to the characters before he deconstructs them. His world is neither purely dark and cynical, nor is it always bright and optimistic. Instead, just as ours is, Fences is a mixture of both. It is brilliant writing that deserves to be seen on the big screen.
But with that, comes the acknowledgement that Fences will not dazzle you as Rogue One or Doctor Strange did earlier in 2016. Given our modern expectations of films, this one seems a little old fashioned and a bit slow. But I encourage you to see this in-spite of its lack of visual spectacle, because this work presents ideas that are equally fascinating and devastating, and performances that will leave you laughing and weeping.