Fences is a movie with a somewhat contradictory dichotomy at its core. On one hand, the film is a masterwork, a labor of love adapted from the late, great August Wilson’s award-winning 1983 play and engineered for the screen by Denzel Washington. Yet it’s also a somewhat pedestrian cinematic achievement. As a showcase for acting, it’s a marvel. As cinema, it’s less impressive, a picture that’s too devoted to its theatrical roots to fully translate the language of the theater into the language of the movies. It’s the definition of a filmed play, with Washington attempting to capture the heightened reality and immediacy felt in a live environment sans the live component of the theatrical equation.
To a point, this works in Fences, but non-cinematic modes for making movies have diminishing returns. After all, movies have their own set of storytelling conventions, and when those conventions are deemphasized, so, too, is the medium’s allure. Washington and his cinematographer, the talented Charlotte Bruus Christensen, shoot the film as simply and as intimately as possible, and their approach is a double-edged sword: It partially recreates the sensation of watching Fences in a theater setting but prevents it from telling Wilson’s story in the manner of a movie, eschewing complex or declarative compositions and angles for stability. The camera records the drama without enhancing it, remaining a stationary tool instead of an active participant in the film’s saga of familial friction.
If Fences adheres to a basic visual scheme, though, Washington and his supporting cast lend it dazzling, urgent life. (In a film like Fences, even actors as immensely talented as Viola Davis and Stephen Henderson will be thought of as “supporting.”) One may wish for more from Washington stylistically considering his history behind the lens (Fences marks his third time directing, following Antwone Fisher in 2002 and The Great Debaters in 2007), but he’s so busy giving his all in front of it that it is easy to look past the streamlined imagery. His talent as an actor benefits him most here, allowing him to foster an easy, palpable chemistry between his cast in their every scene. Maybe we don’t see movies like this for bravura direction. Maybe we see them for bravura acting, and for the poetically frank ways in which they express their core themes and ideas.
Fences is made of powerful and sadly relevant stuff. It’s important without announcing its importance, a movie that is stripped of pretense, with its significance wrapped in a disarming mundanity. Like Wilson’s 1983 play, Washington’s film is set in the 1950s. All the people and objects within it orbit Troy Maxson, a Pittsburgh waste collector who busts his ass every day to provide for his wife, Rose (Davis), their son, Cory (Jovan Adepo), and Lyons (Russell Hornsby), Troy’s older son and the child of his previous marriage. We learn right away that Lyons tends to appear on Troy’s doorstep every payday, but other figures habitually haunt his home, too: Mr. Bono (Henderson), his best friend and comrade at arms on the dustcart, and also Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), his brother, a soldier who took a grievous head wound in combat and now lives his days chasing away the “hellhounds” of his imagination.
Despite the size of Fences’ cast, it isn’t truly an ensemble work. By and large it’s Troy’s story, and by extension, Washington’s. Troy is the sort of person toward whom others gravitate, and as in Wilson’s play, he is the center of the universe in Washington’s film. And how could he not be? Troy is a force, a man with an undignified demeanor who fights like hell for his dignity every day, a lion draped in a garbage man’s coveralls. He’ll always take a chance to remind anyone within earshot that he doesn’t have a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out of—not because he gives a shit about your pity, but because it is his mission to drive home the truth of his existence, be it to Rose, to Mr. Bono, to Lyons, to the audience, and most of all to Cory, who has aspirations and a plan for seeing his aspirations come to fruition.
Cory wants to play high school football, which Troy opposes on principle based on his experiences playing baseball in the Negro League. Their spats mark a recurring source of turmoil in Fences (others being Troy’s relationship to Gabriel and to Rose). These varying conflicts occur against the backdrop of Wilson’s chosen city and era, but Troy’s fears are sadly current. He wants Cory (and, to a lesser, unspoken extent, Lyons) to think pragmatically, to ditch the dream of sports and focus on having a trade, because, to paraphrase Troy, no one can take your trade away from you. Cory, with Rose in his corner, points out that the times are changing, but Troy knows better: He’s faced systemic racism directly, he understands how its mechanics work, and he isn’t eager to trust that changing times will dismantle it. If he’s hard on Cory, it’s only to protect him, because Troy is very much the type of man who’d rather browbeat his child himself than let the harsh world that lies beyond their stoop do it for him.
Characterizing Fences as a movie about America would be cliché if it wasn’t so much the goddamn truth: It’s a portrait of Wilson’s America, of Washington’s America, of Davis’, Adepo’s, Hornsby’s and Henderson’s America. It’s a portrait of the America that black Americans live in, which is in so many ways wholly separate from the America in which white Americans live. It’s a portrait of a young black man struggling to remove himself from his father’s towering shadow, a shadow interwoven with all of his hopes, his anxieties, his self-loathing, his chagrin, his existential terror. It is, perhaps above all else, a testament to the endurance of Wilson’s work, which Washington has wanted to translate into film since starring in Fences’ 2010 Broadway revival.
Listening to Washington finesse Wilson’s dialogue alongside the rest of the film’s esteemed cast, you understand precisely why, too. Fences is personal, not just to Wilson but to each of the actors on the screen. This may explain how Washington wrangled the revival’s original cast for his adaptation (save for Adepo, who is a newcomer both to Fences and to cinema). His enterprise gives them all an opportunity to capture their well-honed performances in amber for eternity And what performances they are—this is especially true of Davis’, who traces Rose’s long-suffering loyalty to Troy through snot trails, righteous, justified indignation, and occasional stone-cold delivery of razor-sharp pithy remarks.
For a first-timer, the film would be an achievement. For Washington, it’s further proof of his indelibility as an actor. (Troy at one point opines that, “I might live forever.” It’s hard to say whether he’s talking about himself or about Washington, who remains one of our greatest contemporary movie stars.) But in the year where Barry Jenkins turned theater into cinema with Moonlight, Fences’ modest cinematographic ambition may leave some wanting, regardless of the quality of its stagecraft. When Troy monologues in his backyard, challenging the specter of death as only a man like he could, Christensen takes the camera aloft, allowing his protestations to hang in the air as if they’ve been sent heavenward. Moments like these expand the static boundaries of Fences’ original medium, and for all of the film’s merits and strengths, it could have used more of them.
Director: Denzel Washington
Writer: August Wilson
Starring: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen Henderson, Jovan Adepo, Russell Hornsby, Mykelti Williamson
Release Date: December 16, 2016
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He writes additional words for Movie Mezzanine, The Playlist, and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.