7.5 out of 10
Denzel Washington as Troy Maxson
Directed by Denzel Washington
What is responsibility is due to others: to fathers, sons, brothers, wives, daughters, friends, strangers? What responsibility do we owe to ourselves for the choices we’ve made (as opposed to our rationalizations for them)? Seeking the answers to these questions has been the essence of literature and philosophy and even though we’re no closer to finding an answer (and never will be), we have gotten a lot of excellent novels and plays out of it.
Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson spent most of his career struggling with those issues, particularly as they regarded the African American experience. The results were peculiarly brilliant and complex sketches of both specific individuals and more universal lives filled with difficult emotions and brilliant turns of phrase, particularly the drama he received his second Pulitzer for — Fences.
Set, as many of Wilson’s plays were, in Pittsburgh, Fences chronicles the turning points in the lives of the Maxson clan through the explosive window of patriarch Troy (Washington). A garbage man in the 1950s, Troy has lived a difficult life through the Great Depression, a stint in prison and even a stint playing professional baseball in the Negro leagues.
It’s a life which has taught him the value of taking care of his children (Adepo, Hornsby) and loving his wife (Davis), but which has not blunted the rage for lack of options he has faced in racially-divided America. Be it not having the chance to play in the Major Leagues or not having the option to drive garbage trucks, because that is left to white employees, the bitterness which ruined his young life threatens to do the same for his middle age. Worse, as the days behind start to outnumber the days ahead he has to ask himself what all he has experienced ultimately adds up to, if anything at all.
Bringing that to the big screen in way that entertains as it enlightens is no small thing. Plays have always been a favored inspiration for big-screen adventures stemming from the earliest days of cinema when narrative shorts were essentially filmed plays. But for most of the mediums, history ‘inspiration’ was the key word in that sort of translation, using the text as the leaping off point and looking for methods to fill in the gaps and build out the world of the text in a way the stage physically cannot.
Director-star Washington turns his back on that tradition for most of Fences, offering for a purely text-driven adaptation which really might be called a filmed play more than film to the point of crediting Wilson (who died in 2005) with the screenplay. The result offers up everything that is great about the original play – fantastic dialogue serving talented actors – but takes little advantage of the differences the medium offers to expand on its inspiration.
What it does do, it does exceptionally well thanks to a skilled cast lead by Washington and Davis (reprising their roles from the 2010 Broadway revival). Wilson delivered up some of his most complex characters and dynamic relationships in Fences and the visual limits of keeping to the play’s one set (the Maxson home) leaves us little to focus on but those elements. Washington is as good as he has ever been, cycling quickly and easily through the bitterness he feels about his past, particularly the conflicted hope he has for his youngest son (Adepo) and desire for them not to be the same as he due to recognizing his own weaknesses even as he gives in to them.
Davis, though frequently absent as cast members rotate in and out to spend time with Troy and dissect through relationships with him, ably holds her own particularly in the second half when Troy throws a monkey wrench into her idea of their marriage and forces her to answer those questions about responsibility for herself.
What it takes advantage of from the material (in a way film increasingly is wary of doing as cinematic storytelling outweighs prose or even poetry), it gives up in craft. A different type of adaptation would attempt to add in the parts described by the play – Troy’s conversation with his boss, his actual meeting with the Deputy Commissioner, his trip to the hospital – but little of that is used here except for the odd transition material between acts.
There are a few clues as to what that adaptation would have been like – particularly a lengthy tracking shot at the beginning following Troy and best friend Bono (Henderson) home from work – but for the most part, Fences the film is like getting a particularly fine version of the recent Broadway version straight to your door. That’s not a small thing – Wilson’s astute eye for characterization and important question asking about how we perceive our lives versus the way others do – and makes for frequently engaging viewing. But it’s not a film in the conventional sense and that lack ultimately keeps it from being all it could.
Fences boasts sterling performances and deep, uncomfortable characterization even as it struggles to get away from its stage roots.