Movie Review: Fences.
Denzel Washington and Viola Davis turn in tremendous performances, adapting the difficult and somber play for the big screen.
Fences is a difficult movie. On a technical level, adapting a play into a motion picture has unique pitfalls. The transition between scenes that are natural to a play can become stilted, the dialogue meant to carry over an audience can feel less like speaking and more like a speech, and achieving a pace appropriate to film is often challenging. Luckily, Fences has a screenplay adapted by the playwright, August Wilson, and features a fine cast who are intimately familiar with the piece, having worked on the Tony Award winning revival of the play from 2010.
A second level of difficulty arises from the material of the play. Part of his ten-part Pittsburgh cycle, Fences is the seventh play by Wilson to address the changing circumstances for African Americans. It does not shy away from presenting thorny issues and troubled characters. Wilson’s focus on realism presents a protagonist, Troy Maxson, who is hard to sympathize with, even as we grow to understand the circumstances that shaped his personality. Once again, a fantastic cast helps to carry the day, presenting a vividly captured moment in the evolution of American race relations as lived by complex and engaging characters.
Troy Maxson is a sanitation worker who struggles to provide for his family. On older man, his physically demanding job has taken a toll on his body, and his ability to advance to the role of truck driver is thwarted by racial bias. At home, his struggle to relate with his two sons and guide them through the mine field of American life at a time when legal segregation was ending, but social segregation was still firmly in place. Despite the support of his loving wife, he increasingly turns to drinking and carrying on with other women, eventually having a daughter out of wedlock. His marriage on the brink of failure and his youngest son on the verge of rebellion, Troy turns obsessively to the project of building a fence around his home. Once a dream of his wife to keep their home secure, it now becomes a metaphorical fortification for Troy to keep the troubles of the world outside.
Death of the American Dream
One of the key elements that drive the action of Fences is the sharp generational divide between Troy and his youngest son, Cory. Cory has benefited from the struggles of his parents generation: he is able to find work in a respectable store as a student, and his grades and athletic prowess have him on the verge of receiving a football scholarship. Troy, struggling in a job that refuses him advancement and is distasteful to him, had his dreams of playing in the Major Leagues taken from him (though we are given evidence that in addition to race, his age and mercurial temperament aided in keeping him from playing anywhere but the Negro Leagues.) Cory still trusts in the American dream; Troy sees that dream as a sham and believes the only smart play is to keep your ambitions modest and gather a life around yourself that white America cannot take from you.
The changing of the times is a tension that roils the home life of the Maxsons. Despite social gains, Troy has been so conditioned by the brutality of the past that he cannot change alongside the wider culture. He is resentful that it took a Jackie Robinson to force baseball to accept African Americans, emphatically declaring “there should never have been a time too soon” for a black man to play up to his ability. Likewise, despite securing a driving job after confronting his boss, he does not trust that his prospects will ever improve. When his older son gets in trouble with the law, he sees the same system that drove him to crime and incarceration as a youth. When his younger son is poised to grasp the promise of a better future, Troy holds him back with his whole might, convinced that it is a pipe dream that will be cruelly snatched from him.
Fences benefits from a phenomenal cast. Denzel Washington plays Troy with fervor and energy. We see his stifled brilliance through the constant stories that he tells, often aided by a bottle of gin. When he begins to spiral out of control, Washington gives his character a menacing physicality, like a storm threatening to unleash itself at any moment. Viola Davis turns in a performance that outshines any I have seen this year as Rose Maxson. She delivers her lines with such elegance and affect that you never doubt her as Rose. It feels like Washinton is giving a strong performance, but Davis is completely inhabiting her character to the point you don’t notice it as a performance, only as a very real person whose life you are actually witnessing.
The rest of the cast is likewise strong. Stephen McKinley Henderson plays Troy’s lifelong friend Bono, and provides a compassionate foil to his wild nature. Mykelti Williamson has the daunting task of playing Gabe Maxson, a man mentally handicapped during his service in the war, and makes his role feel natural and emotionally compelling. Jovan Adepo gives a fine turn as Cory, but I appreciated Russell Hornsby much more as Lyons, the elder brother. The product of Rose’s first marriage, he is the perpetual outsider and ne’er do well. He becomes the prodigal son’s long suffering older brother, never considered worthy of a feast, but quietly enduring his father’s neglect with dignity.
There are some aspects of Fences where the change from a stage play to a film are noticeable. I found myself constantly imagining how certain scenes would appear on the stage as opposed to how I was seeing them. The constant coming and going of cast and returning to “center stage” before major action was engaged was not exactly distracting, but noticeable. A few scenes that attempted to use more complex cinematography were more apparent and slightly out of joint. You notice when the camera suddenly becomes a participant by panning or changing angle, mostly because it happens so infrequently. One scene where the camera circles Troy becomes jarring.
That being said, certain elements of film added to the piece. We get to have exposition segments (which from the lack of dialogue I assumed were not in the staging of the play) that add depth to certain characters such as Gabe. When used subtly, the camera is able to get very close to the characters and allow their gestures and speech to be more nuanced and restrained than would be possible by simply moving upstage. Overall, it adds some elements while subtracting others, and made me want to see the play as a comparison afterwards.
(One place where I felt the play obviously superior was the ending. There is a moment where what would have been only implied on the stage was made explicit by an extended shot, and I feel that it stripped the final sequence of some of its more nuanced qualities.)
Fences is a film with a high degree of difficulty for audiences. It is a story of compelling, but not necessarily sympathetic characters living through an intensely personal part of their lives. Think Death of a Salesman plus race relations. That is not to say that the movie is not fantastic, it is indeed a tremendously moving experience. It is just a harrowing experience as well. I did notice several people leaving the theater during the film.
At the end of the day, Fences is a strong period piece that tells an intensely poignant story. The flaws of the main character become the fertile ground for exploring how deeply the experience of segregation and poverty effected a generation, causing Troy Maxson to build an emotional fortress around himself that sadly grew so forbidding that not even his family could be allowed inside it. Denzel Washinton, Viola Davis, and the whole cast give life to the drama expertly, and despite minor flaws, Fences is a powerful film worth the emotional effort involved in viewing it.