Fantastic Performances Elevate a Faithful Adaptation
Playwright August Wilson won great acclaim and numerous awards for his layered depictions of African-Americans through his many works, one of the most famous being the 1983 play Fences. Now, Denzel Washington has brought the play to life as a film as both its director and star. But Fences’ hyper-faithful recreation makes it into both a powerful display of Wilson’s creation and a sometimes frustrating example of the clash between the styles of play and film.
Set in Pittsburgh during the 1950s, Fences tells the story of husband and wife Troy (Denzel Washington) and Rose Maxson (Viola Davis), who are dealing with the changing world around them and their tumultuous past. As Troy and Rose spend time talking with their son Cory (Jovan Adepo) and other family members week after week, we begin to learn more and more about their past, as well as Troy’s numerous shortcomings. But a revelation concerning Troy threatens to tear their family apart and forever alter what small amount of happiness they have carved out in a cold and harsh world.
In every essence, Fences feels like a play. It’s not surprising, given that August Wilson himself adapted his play for the screen before his death in 2005. From dialogue to structure to character, Fences is a very faithful adaptation of the play and both Washington and Davis, who have played these characters countless times since starring in the 2010 Broadway revival, are clearly at home within the interior lives of their characters. Those who loved the play or who are interested in seeing what this seminal story is all about will find plenty to love in Washington’s film adaptation.
However, those unaccustomed to the storytelling style and character work often found within plays may find Fences to feel strange when reproduced in cinematic language. Whether you are keenly aware of the difference between film and play or not, it’s clear that Fences is operating in a far different manner than the typical movie.
Classically structured films play out in three acts, which segment the story into definable but cohesive parts in order to escalate the plot and progress the characters as they grow and change through conflict. Cinema is also a medium of showing rather than telling. When a defining moment occurs, it most often occurs on screen for audiences to see. While these are rules that are made to be broken by great storytellers, they are an indispensable part of cinematic language.
But as a whole, Fences adheres to the storytelling techniques found in plays in order to bring the story to the screen with as few alterations as possible. Rather than operate in a three-act film structure, Fences is cyclical in its storytelling, having its characters return to the same location week after week to talk and process what has happened to them in the time in between that is not seen on screen. This means that Fences largely sticks to a single location, as is often done within plays, and refrains from showing crucial moments in favor of having its characters talk about them. For those unwilling to accept such storytelling choices, Fences could be a frustrating experience, but one has to wonder if Wilson’s story would remain as tightly focused on its compelling characters and themes if the storytelling sensibilities were largely altered for the screen.
What Fences is, in essence, is an illustration of how a fundamentally flawed man can impact the family around him. As that man, Washington brings a powerhouse performance, with Troy revealed to be both a boisterous storyteller and a man of many fears and failures. From the very start, Washington spouts incessant speeches that range from the whimsical to the deeply personal at such a rapid fire pace that you would not be alone in having to breathlessly keep up with the character’s dialogue. But it’s in those many speeches and familial interactions that we are able to get deeper into Troy and begin to see the truth about his character.
While Washington’s Troy may be the biggest and boldest character within the film, it’s Davis’ Rose who gives Fences its deepest meanings. At first quiet and secondary to the focus on Troy, Rose eventually becomes the reason for this story existing, as she is the true source of love and care for the family in the wake of Troy’s many pain-inducing faults. Davis brings out Rose’s strength and pain through a series of choices and one incredibly heartbreaking conversation that illustrates volumes about their marriage in only a few short minutes. It’s a spectacular performance that is on par with Washington’s and possibly even more layered when compared to the less nuanced and more boisterous Troy.
Like most intimate plays, Fences depends on the strength of the actors involved and the dialogue given to them. It’s no shock that the dialogue in Fences is incredible, as it’s all taken from the much-loved play. Filled with metaphor concerning the bonds forged and broken within families and meticulously worded, the conversations in Fences are powerful, even though they are structured in a way that feels slightly off in the world of cinema, given that they are meant for the bold and bright world of the stage. And while Fences has only a few characters that are ever given a line to speak, each is admirably brought to life by their performers. Most notable, outside the two central actors, are Adepo as Cory, who begins to chafe against the flawed and often hypocritical rule of his father, and Stephen McKinley Henderon as Troy’s friend Jim Bono, who acts as a contrast to Troy despite their longtime friendship.
Washington’s film gives each of these performances the time they need to shine in their various ways, even when its visual style lacks any additional flair. It may be that Washington felt a debt to Wilson after starring in a Broadway version of the play and having the opportunity to bring this story to larger audiences, but his direction is mainly concerned with remaining squarely focused on the actors. The performances are surely deserving of being highlighted, but Washington’s direction makes no pretenses about this clearly being a play recorded on film, even though small touches here and there expand the world around the characters.
Fences also suffers from being just so slightly too long, with the narrative stretching past several moments that feel like a conclusion. It doesn’t help that the atypical structure of the play given strict adaptation within the film makes it confusing to determine just exactly when the story is coming to a close until its final minutes. Fences might not feel as repetitive and over-long if steps had been taken to more clearly delineate the rising and falling structure of the story. As it stands, those muddy structural choices make the final feel interminable, even when invested in the actions of the characters involved.
The faithfulness on display in Washington’s film is admirable in light of how this beloved play made its way to the big screen, but may be what keeps Fences from being a completely compelling film in its own right. Those who enjoy Fences may find themselves longing to see a live play version of the story with these same actors, free from the format clashes of film.