The history of the cinema is littered by well-intentioned but ill-thought-out attempts to bring stage plays to the big screen. The inherent contradiction between the theatre – where dialogue is the focus – and the cinema – where the emphasis is on visuals – sometimes does both the play and the movie in question a disservice. There are exceptions however; often involving Shakespeare (see, for example, Justin Kurzel’s thrilling Macbeth or Richard Loncraine’s stylish Richard III). Now Denzel Washington both directs and stars in another stage adaptation, this time of August Wilson’s 1985 play, Fences; part of Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle.
Unlike some adaptations, Washington doesn’t make too many feints toward breaking the film away from its theatrical roots. Apart from the opening sequence and a couple of other scenes, the film takes place almost entirely in the backyard of a house in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. The result is some momentary claustrophobia (accentuated by the main character’s attempts to build one of the fences of the title) but that’s soon overcome if you can tap into the poetic rhythm of Wilson’s dialogue and themes.
It’s the 1950s, and the house in question belongs to Troy Maxson (Washington); who lives there with devoted wife Rose (Viola Davis) and teenage son Cory (Jovan Adepo). Troy was once a baseball star, but due to the attitudes of the time, he spent his career in the Negro Leagues and is now somewhat resentful that Jackie Robinson has broken into the Major Leagues. Troy now works as a garbage man, where his co-worker Bono (Stephen Henderson) is also his best friend and drinking buddy. Like many of his neighbours, Troy is struggling to get by. However, when a door opens for Cory to get into college by way of a football scholarship, Troy is downright hostile to the idea, placing impossible demands on the young man. He also has a fractious relationship with Lyons (Russell Hornsby), his 30-something son from a previous relationship. Lyons is trying to make it as a musician, but the unreliable pay means he’s often dropping in on Troy for a “loan”. As if all that weren’t enough, Troy is guardian to his brother Gabe (Mykelti Williamson). Seriously injured in the war, Gabe lives across the street but his brain damage makes him a handful.
The first thing you need to appreciate going into Fences is that there is a lot of talking. Much of this takes the form of soliloquies from Troy, as he waxes on the benefits of hard work, making a living, the plight of the black man, workplace politics and just about anything else that takes his fancy. When some of the other characters get a chance, they similarly launch into long speeches. While this might sound stupefying, once you get your ear attuned to what’s going on, the film takes on a peculiar cadence all its own. The film figuratively breaks out of its confines via the audience’s imagination.
The plot itself (from a screenplay penned by Wilson prior to his death in 2005) has a lot of moving parts, even leaving aside the dialogue. Wilson manages to cram in a bevy of complicated relationships, civil rights issues, race relations and gender roles. He even has time to squeeze in a few elements that come perilously close to soap opera.
As you might expect, the film largely turns into an actors’ picnic, with most of the fairly contained cast getting the chance to show their stuff. Denzel Washington, naturally, is the focus of the film as Troy and does not miss a beat in the meaty role. Viola Davis has his measure as the quietly spoken but fiercely determined Rose. Their moments of conflict really spark the film into life. Young Jovan Adepo has one of the toughest parts as the downtrodden Cory, but comes into his own as the film progresses; while Mykelti Williamson gives a brilliant portrayal of the childlike Gabe.
It’s fair to say Fences is likely to be a love-it-or-hate-it proposition. This is a rich, dense film filled with ideas, conflict and questions. If you’re a fan of the theatre (in particular, drama as opposed to musicals) this will probably be right up your alley. However, for anyone willing to give in to the play’s insistent rhythms, there is a lot to enjoy here.
Director: Denzel Washington
Cast: Viola Davis, Stephen Henderson, Denzel Washington
Release Date: 9 February 2017
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television