The business of bringing celebrated works of theater to the screen has always been an incredibly risky process. What works so well on the stage in terms of setting and backdrop many times simply fails to register with the same power when brought to the big screen. For every play which can be expanded and reach new areas of storytelling, there are many others which fail to come off as anything other than filmed versions of their stage productions. With its theatrical pedigree and scattered cinematic moments, Fences falls somewhere in between the two. The Denzel Washington-directed adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play (in which he also successfully starred in the recent Broadway revival) fails to shed itself of that pesky stagy feel, but is redeemed thanks to Washington’s deep understanding of the material and some of the best acting of the year.
Fences takes place in 1950s Pittsburgh and centers on the lives of Troy and Rose Maxson. Troy is a garbage man who has made an honest life for him and his family, which can best be described as middle-class according to the social standards of the day. Rose, meanwhile, is a loving and dutiful wife and mother who has devoted her life to her family’s well-being and, for all intents and purposes, has found joy in the life she has created with Troy. Their lives soon take unexpected turns as revelations surface which threaten the peaceful existence within their household.
The film represents Washington’s third outing behind the camera following 2002’s Antwone Fisher and 2007’s The Great Debaters (one of that year’s best), and for all the stellar acting and powerful dialogue on hand here, Fences is probably the weakest of the three. This is due to no fault of his own. Washington is certainly more than a competent enough director who knows how to capture the soul of the piece he’s filming, bringing out its beauty and truth, no matter what it looks like. The problem is that this material is almost impossible to translate to film in a way which frees itself from that closed off feeling many plays contain. For all his time spent on a film set, Washington fails at making the proceedings come off as an organic cinematic entity. That’s not to say there aren’t times when he doesn’t come close. Montage sequences showing the passage of time are wonderfully handled with pitch perfect music that greatly elevate the story. Meanwhile, the carefully-timed close-ups on characters during the most pivotal of dramatic moments (even if the subject of the close-up isn’t the the subject of the moment) take the story to places that were simply impossible to go to on the stage.
As a piece of drama, Fences embodies every letter of the word from start to finish. In fact it does this so much that it’s tough to keep up with every devastating turn that happens in the Maxson household. Likewise, it becomes easy to drown in all of the poetic and well-written dialogue, which seldom pauses long enough to give those watching enough time to soak up the beauty and wisdom of what’s being expressed. In spite of this, Fences works thanks to a number of moments which ring as true and unforgettable. The biggest of these is when Troy admits to Rose that he’s found himself at an emotional crossroads with regard to the life he’s lived for nearly two decades. “I’ve got 18 years standing in the same spot as you,” exclaims Rose, echoing Troy’s own frustrations while reminding him that she too is a person with her own frustrations. Some say that much of what makes film so powerful is less a cohesive whole and more a collection of moments which represent the many shades of real life in bold and imaginative ways. Fences certainly proves this notion true with its endless wraps of dialogue containing many of those kinds of special moments which make movies (and this movie in particular) worth watching.
A great collection of supporting performances elevates Fences to levels of pure greatness, including Stephen McKinley Henderson as Troy’s best friend, Russell Hornsby and Jovan Adepo as Troy’s sons, and Mykelti Williamson (especially heartbreaking as Troy’s mentally handicapped brother). All eyes will be on the two leads, however, and rightfully so. Rose and Troy may well be the largest and most important roles of either actor’s career in many ways, and this is certainly proven in the ferocity with which Davis and Washington attack their roles. The latter has never been more explosive on-screen, wonderfully capturing Troy’s fears, frustrations, expectations, and sadness. For her part, this will surely be the film which will earn Davis her long-deserved Oscar. Not only does the actress wonderfully embody the prototype of a black housewife in the 1950s, but she manages to take her further than any other portrait has before, unearthing a shaky but steadfast strength and a quiet dignity that’s a joy to behold.
It’s hard to know for sure what the future holds for Fences in terms of posterity. The film has all the makings of that rare kind of title which can be both commercially successful AND critically acclaimed. However, will Fences be a classic? That’s more than a little hard to say. The film may be too packed and busy to be looked back on in the loving way most people do when they revisit films. Even if it doesn’t end up having the kind of lasting legacy that other drama do, Fences will undoubtedly always remain a stunning, well-made piece of work that will stand for those who choose to discover it.