‘Fences’ is based on the Pulitzer Prize winning play of the same name by August Wilson. Even if you hadn’t heard of that before, you’d be instantly aware of the project’s stage-bound origins. Adapting theater for film is tricky because they’re such different art forms. What feels poetic on stage can seem stilted on film and vice versa. It takes a delicate touch and a willingness to change for the transition between mediums to work.
Directing his third feature, Denzel Washington clearly approached the material with his heart in the right place. (He’s appeared in stage productions of it multiple times.) He wanted to cast the movie with major talents and then play it as close to the script as possible. That leads to some remarkable performances and a movie that never feels like a movie in ways that unflatteringly strain the source material. It’s worth showing up for the actors, but a taped stage production would likely have been a wiser choice.
Washington stars as Troy Maxson, a former Negro League baseball star turned garbage man. His big dreams long ago gave way to attainable reality. He has a loving wife (Viola Davis), a nice kid, a great best friend, and all the time he needs to chatter on endlessly. Sometimes he brags and sometimes he’s wistful, but he always talks and philosophizes and has oh so much to say. As you’d expect, those long conversations often turn dark. The more he speaks, the more we learn, and the less pleasant it seems. Side characters become mirrors to his hidden tragedy and the play (sorry, film) slowly digs out the pains of the African American experience through heavy monologues designed for actors to dig into and rip to shreds.
There’s poetry to August Wilson’s words and beauty to his message. It’s dark and unsettling, but hopeful. Mythic yet realistic. Arty yet accessible. All the things that a great play make, and it must have played like gangbusters on the stage, especially for the era in which it was written. The thing about the theater, though, is that there’s a natural artificiality built into the presentation that allows writers to stretch beyond what movie screens can contain. You’re always aware you’re watching a performance, so the writing can be performative and the acting has to be big enough to hit the back row. On film, faces are blown up large enough so that even the tiniest flicker of emotion registers to viewers. The visual language is rooted in action (not necessarily boom-boom, but stuff happening). Watching people stand and talk has a tendency to get dull, and Washington did nothing to expand the movie for the screen here. The script feels too heightened, too big, and too on-the-nose, even when it shouldn’t.
It also doesn’t help that the performances (for the most part) are cranked up to 11. Washington won a Tony for his stage role and it was his dream to put it on film. The guy has an amazing ability to project naturalism and subtle emotions on screen, but rarely does so here. He goes about as big as his final “King Kong” speech in ‘Training Day’ from the first scene. It’s compelling, but too much. Much too much. You’ll feel thrown back in your seat by his larger-than-life portrayal, and not in a good way.
Other cast members such as Jovan Adepo and Stephen Henderson come off as far more natural because their job is to sit back and let the Dezel hurricane chew up the scenery around them. Only Viola Davis finds the right mix of big and small. She’s a remarkable actress and this is a great role. She nails it and is absolutely devastating in ways that are unforgettable. She will get awards for this and she deserves them all.
As a work of pure dick-slinging, showoff acting, ‘Fences’ has its charms. Everyone on screen knows how important this play is and acts it as hard as they possibly can. Unfortunately, other than Viola Davis they all do a little too much, and as a director, Denzel Washington does far too little. He doesn’t reign in performances for the screen and certainly doesn’t open up the drama for cinema. It’s like watching the world’s biggest and most expensive staged reading of a play. No matter how good a reading might be, it’s not a play and that’s the whole reason this script was written in the first place.
Sadly, ‘Fences’ just wasn’t meant to be a movie. It was worth a shot and Denzel Washington’s heart was in the right place. The thing just never quite comes together or feels like a film. It’s more like a glossy homework assignment.