|Scene from Fences|
The process of adapting live theater to film is often seen as a challenge. For the first movie based on beloved playwright August Wilson's work, Denzel Washington tackles Wilson's most revered work that even earned Washington and co-star Viola Davis Tony Awards for its 2010 revival. There's a love to the language and the performance that shines through from the first second of the film as Troy (Washington) comes home from his job as a garbageman. He is cocky, optimistic, but also sour at the wrong turn of phrase. It is a story of the changing tides in African American culture in the 1950's as well as the disappointments and fears of fathers passing the baton on to another generation. As an adaptation, it's as riveting and engrossing as acting is likely to get in 2016. As a movie, it leaves plenty to be desired.
There is a naturalism to the way that Wilson's story compliments itself to the screen over 30 years after its debut and 11 years after his death. The script remains largely verbatim, and with good reason. To hear Washington mix his strict parenting with baseball metaphors is to remind ourselves of why he remains a titan of acting. He makes simple procedures such as borrowing money into a tense, funny, and poignant piece of acting. He doesn't need to yell. He merely finds a tone that eats into his co-stars' souls and creates an authenticity that makes the harrowing tale to follow all the more tragic. Layers unravel as we discover Troy's problematic life, understanding why he is so frustrated. It is in part the curse of, as his friend Buono (Stephen Henderson) would put it, being born too early. He wished to be a baseball player and claims that heavyweights like Jackie Robinson aren't all that great. He's bitter that his life has been reduced to 18 years of stagnation simply because he was too old to follow his dreams when racial integration became socially acceptable, and it all unravels beautifully through Wilson's language.
His performance becomes more nuanced as he lays out his simple plans. He wants to fix the roof. He wants to build a fence. He wants to give his mentally unstable brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson) a better life. There are tragedies that impact his life, causing a deep repression of his true feelings. He believes that he is a man. He must provide for his family, and there's a frustration in being the selfless hero as he watches his sons follow their dreams of being a musician and a football player. His cautionary attitudes make him difficult to love, especially as he emotionally sabotages their lives, leaving his wife Rose (Davis) to quietly pick up the pieces. It's a relationship built on repression and disappointment; believing that there's love that's never returned. As Buono claims, the fence that Troy is building could be keeping people out, or leaving Troy isolated from the world. For the audience, it's up to them to predict which it is.
After a first half hour of dizzying dialogue and exposition, the story slows down and gives everyone else a time to shine. This is especially true for Rose, whose quiet duty as the film's secret hero is put on blast repeatedly. She breaks down, wishing to understand Troy's foolishness for ruining their sons' lives. It's a clash of beliefs, but more reflective of Troy's deeper disappointment that he never became the sports superstar that he wanted; that he became the mediocre father he always despised. The third act brings the themes full circle in a harrowing, emotional twist that shows rebirth and the impact that second chances can truly have on people. For those willing to progress, it's easy. For those convinced that they'll never be anything, it's a fence keeping the inevitable from happening.
The only downside to the incredible acting feats is that Washington's skills as a director leave something to be desired. While he is phenomenal as Troy, the film lacks a cinematic adaptation that uses the medium to its full advantage. It could be that the best moments are intimate confrontations in the family's backyard. With that said, the direction is lacking and the cinematography often is rather bland. This may be done to emphasize performances, but one could imagine that adding depth and detail would elevate Wilson's work into a new art form void of limited sets and locations. It is the difficult task when adapting material, but keeps Fences from being the flat-out masterpiece that its impressive Tony-winning achievements would suggest. At most, this is a showcase for some fine acting by almost every central performer. If they don't show up big on Oscar night, then there's something wrong.
Fences is a phenomenal film from a story standpoint. Wilson's writing is so precise and fun that he gets sole writing credit here despite being dead for 11 years. Washington shines and Davis continues to be one of every film's secret weapons, providing jaw-dropping moments that shatter your emotional core. If viewed solely for its acting, this film is as passionate as reverent as they come. If viewed as a film that uses its medium fully, it will disappoint. As a result, it's best to view this as a simple film with simple intentions, amplified by a plot that more than warrants the effort in adaptation. It's fun to see a cast shine so brightly. Few films come close to being this well cast. Washington supposedly is going to produce more from Wilson. One can only hope he gives those films the respectful treatment that he did Fences.