If nothing else, Fences is probably the most dramatic movie ever made about building a fence.
Written and adapted by August Wilson, Fences is based on his 1983 play of the same name. Featuring a nearly identical cast from the 2010 Broadway revival, the movie feels very much like a filmed version of the play. There is a wealth of fast-paced dialogue, and few opportunities for movement, instead focusing on conversations within the confines of a house. None of this is inherently positive or negative, but it’s perhaps the most relevant information when framing yourself to watch the film.
Directed by and starring Denzel Washington in a reprisal of his Tony-award winning performance, the film follows a working-class African-American man named Troy Maxson (Washington). Working now as a waste collector, Maxson is an ex-convict and a talented baseball player who never made it to the major leagues because of race and age barriers. As Maxson builds the titular fence over the course of several years, he is forced to confront many of the emotional fences he has created with his family.
These barriers include relationships with his wife (Viola Davis, also reprising her Tony-award winning role), who gave up many of her own dreams to support Maxson; his youngest son (Jovan Adepo), who shows athletic potential, but is forcefully steered away from pursuing a career; and a brother (Mykelti Williamson) who suffered a head injury in World War II and has been left mentally handicapped. Although Denzel Washington and Viola Davis are the clear stars, the performances across the board are absolutely phenomenal.
That’s important because the film relies very heavily on the performances and their translation from theatre to film. In the world of cinema, this is not always a smooth transition, but I think Fences does a great job of capturing what makes the stage production so rapturous. While adaptations such as The Producers seem to almost be apologizing for their screen with distinct sets and singular vantage points, Fences uses the camera as an opportunity to build intimacy, rather than distance. The fact that many of the actors have extensive experience both on stage and on screen certainly doesn’t hurt.
The cinematography (by Danish cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christianson), though limited concerning variety, does a lot to create a feeling of time travel back to the 1950s. Shot on film, there’s a sense of openness and space, despite the enclosed nature of the story. The only major frustration I had with the adaptation from stage to screen was the fact that the camera decides where you can look. There’s not much that the movie could have done to mend this, but there were moments I wished that the camera would hold instead of cutting to a reaction shot.
August Wilson’s play is stunning and heartfelt. The characters are all so complex yet clearly defined, and the power dynamics between the various couplings are fascinating. While this adaptation of the play doesn’t add much to the story (though I’m not sure anything needs to be added), it is an authentic and captivating archival of a stunningly good play. And everyone in the audience has a good seat.