Scott F. Evans
“It’s been a long time… I shouldn’t have left you…”
August Wilson’s acclaimed play Fences finally gets a big screen treatment. While it can be very effective on stage in a live environment, it doesn’t quite work as a piece of cinema.
The problem certainly isn’t with the performances. Denzel Washington turns in yet another excellent performance as the film’s protagonist Troy Maxson. It’s almost a shock to the system to see how animated Washington plays the character. Washington can do more with a simple turn of the head or an eye change than most actors can do with pages of dialogue. Here, he goes from that natural stillness, which works so well in film, to a broad stagey-ness that sometimes feels a little phony.
Viola Davis shines as his long-suffering wife Rose. She puts everything up there on the screen. She’s able to convey both strength and vulnerability at the same time. Rose is almost a thankless role because Troy bulldozes everybody around him. But Davis never allows Rose to get lost in the midst of his destruction. Her performance is probably more grounded than Washington’s, but it’s also a less flamboyant role.
Stephen Henderson almost steals the show as Troy’s best friend and co-worker Jim Bono. No matter how great Denzel and Viola are, they’re still Denzel and Viola: two of the most recognizable faces in the business. Henderson has been around for a while, but he’s still fairly unknown to movie-goers. That near anonymity adds a layer of authenticity to Henderson’s work as Bono. He seems like a man plucked straight from any Black community in the 1950’s. You never see him acting and he gives the most genuine performance in the film.
All of the main actors in the main cast reprise their roles from the 2010 Broadway revival. Jovan Adepo is one of the newcomers to the cast bowing here as Corey, Troy and Rose’s son. Adepo handles the role with ease. Even in his scenes with heavyweights Washington and Davis, he more than holds his own.
Mykelti Williamson and Russell Hornsby play Troy’s brother Gabriel and first son Lyons respectively. Gabriel is afflicted with a wartime head injury and is mentally disabled. In many films this type character can be distracting when the actor is allowed to overplay it. Williamson keeps it reigned in though, showing us Gabriel’s mental struggles, while still underplaying it. Hornsby is solid as the ne’er do well Lyons, but the character is unfortunately shortchanged by the script. Much of his story happens off-screen so Lyons feels like a one-note character.
And that’s why Fences doesn’t quite work as a piece of cinema.
Washington directs the film with an almost slavish adherence to its stage roots, with too much of the action being confined to the Maxson’s backyard. This is understandable for theater productions as there’s an inherent limit to what can be done on a stage. But this is a movie and that visual restriction makes the film feel claustrophobic. Maybe Washington wants the audience to experience the oppressive confinement that the characters are living in, but it feels more like him trying to remain faithful to the play rather than creating a visual theme. The script, written by Wilson (who worked on it before his death in 2005) and Tony Kushner, doesn’t help alleviate the staginess of the film. While the dialogue is rich, authentic, and expertly delivered, far too much of it expository. While monologues are an integral component to theater and actors love them, again, this is cinema. Show us, don’t tell us. The characters in Fences spend a lot of time talking about events that happen offscreen. Many of these events are fairly vital to the plot and could have easily been shot, making the film a fuller cinematic experience. Instead, we’re given something that often looks like they just shot the play in an outdoor theater.
But it’s a soft criticism. Fences is a good film. Because it’s such an actor’s piece, the performances help make this adaptation a success. However, the faithfulness to that theater-ish style prevents it from becoming a classic.