'Fences': Film Review

The play's the thing in this acting showcase.
12/25/2016

Denzel Washington and Viola Davis reprise their stage roles in Washington's screen adaptation of the beloved 1950s-set August Wilson play about a black family in Pittsburgh.

Fences is as faithful, impeccably acted and honestly felt a film adaptation of August Wilson's celebrated play as the late author could have possibly wished for. But whether a pristine representation of all the dramatic beats and emotional surges of a stage production actually makes for a riveting film in and of itself is another matter. Having both won Tony Awards for the excellent 2010 Broadway revival of Wilson's 1986 Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, Denzel Washington and Viola Davis know their parts here backward and forward, and they, along with the rest of the fine cast, bat a thousand, hitting both the humorous and serious notes. But with this comes a sense that all the conflicts, jokes and meanings are being smacked right on the nose in vivid close-ups, with nothing left to suggestion, implication and interpretation.

All the same, public reaction to the material likely will be strong, resulting in a much-needed year-end commercial hit for Paramount.

One of the most individually successful installments of Wilson's celebrated “Pittsburgh Cycle,” the 1950s-set Fences alludes not just literally to the barrier middle-aged Troy (Washington) forever procrastinates about building in the small backyard of his modest city home — but to the career and life obstacles he has never managed to surmount either as a baseball player, for which he blames racial restrictions, or in his messy personal life.

It's a play of poetically heightened realism, with amusing down-home chatter, soaring monologues, boisterous drunken riffs and blunt dramatic confrontations in which Troy bitterly and sometimes cruelly draws the lines between him and those closest to him.

These include his wife Rose (Davis), who loves him, knows all his moods and yet must stoically endure his erratic behavior; teenage son Cory (Jovan Adepo), whose school football career Troy cruelly thwarts by projecting his own sports disappointments onto him; Lyons (Russell Hornsby), Troy's mild-mannered thirty-something son by a previous marriage, a jazz musician who still comes around asking for money; and younger brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), whose wartime head injuries have rendered him childlike.

Getting off easy among Troy's intimates is his old pal Bono (Stephen Henderson), and much of the early going is genially dominated by the pair's increasing high humor as they end their work week as garbagemen with Troy taking out his flask and launching into tall life tales. Rose, having heard it all before, busies herself in the kitchen and alternately resists and succumbs to her husband's wily way with words.

But modest as his station in life may be, it's of paramount importance to Troy that he be regarded as the cock of his particular walk, and a great deal of what he does and says is devoted to emphasizing this point. He may make a meager living, but he uses his slim economic advantage and lordly personality to exert a certain droit du seigneur over his immediate circle; “I'm the boss around here,” he likes to remind the others. This is particularly hurtful to Cory, whose dreams his father so unreasonably thwarts, but is also demeaning to his wife and older son. Troy withholds from his loved ones almost as if by instinct, winning on points in the short term but losing in the long run due to what can only be called spiteful meanness.

In his third outing as a big-screen director (after Antwone Fisher in 2002 and The Great Debators in 2007), Washington opens up the play's action a bit, discreetly moving out onto the street for a stickball game, to a bar and into the city to get the characters out of the house once in a while.

All the same, the film cannot shed constant reminders of its theatrical roots, nor of how different theatrical playwriting is from original screenwriting in this day and age. There were periods, especially through the 1950s and 1960s, when nearly every Broadway and London play of any artistic importance or commercial viability was adapted into a film, when audiences were accustomed to lengthy exchanges and monologues during which characters would basically speechify while being photographed. Now such transfers are a rarity — the last straight play to win a best picture Academy Award was Driving Miss Daisy 27 years ago, and perhaps the three most notable non-musical plays made into films in the past few years, August: Osage County, Carnage and Venus in Fur, went nowhere commercially.

Due to Fences' star power and innate qualities, this will not be the case for the film, which offers enough dramatic meat, boisterous humor and lived-in performances to hook audiences of all stripes. But just one example of a device that proved acceptable onstage but plays awkwardly onscreen is that of Troy's brain-damaged brother, who wanders through multiple scenes with a bugle strung around his neck in the manner of any number of kindly “simpleton” characters that used to pop up in plays and literature. Of far more symbolic than dramatic use to the story, Gabriel's movements and utterances come off as awkward and pretentiously meaningful onscreen in a way that they did not onstage.

As carefully as Washington moves the action around the limited locations, the abundance of long speeches, high-pitched exchanges and emotional depth charges are unmistakably redolent of the stage rather than very closely related to the way films have been written in a very long time. It was perhaps the problem with the film Steve Jobs last year that it was written more like a play than a film, and the sense of excess speechifying and calculated waves of character revelation give the piece an increasingly laborious feel one expects and wants in the theater but that seems somehow alien onscreen.

Fences deals overtly with racial issues almost exclusively in connection with Troy's resentment over employment opportunities. Insisting that being black is what prevented him from becoming a big league baseball player, he then badmouths the black stars who made the grade in the majors. Of more relevance to his current life is his eventual success in breaking down an absurd racial barrier that has long prevented black trash collectors from moving up to become garbage truck drivers, which pays better. Small victory though it is (and it's related just anecdotally, not dramatized onscreen), this breakthrough would seem to represent Troy's most purely admirable accomplishment, especially in light of the big bombshell he drops later on.

Great in these roles onstage, Washington and Davis repeat the honors here, he with quicksilver shifts from ingratiating tall-tale-telling and humor to bulldog-like demands to his wife and offspring that he be treated like the boss king he fancies himself to be. Davis beautifully illuminates the ways in which Rose has learned to live with this man, to be quiet or cut him slack when it's not worth the effort of a fight, but to make it clear that she has lines she will not allow to be crossed. Despite his delusions and pride, she clearly still loves the guy, and the two make an entirely convincing long-term husband and wife.

Henderson is a joy as Troy's easygoing straight man, who indulges his old pal's every whim, joke and complaint, while Adepo well channels the tension and rebellious desires the athletic, straight-arrow son must suck up when his father lays down the law.

Production designer David Gropman and cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen create a warmly appealing lived-in ambiance. Playwright Tony Kushner receives a prominent co-producer credit, reportedly for having done the pruning and shaping to bring the three-hour play down to a more screen-friendly length.

Distributor: Paramount
Production companies: Bron Creative, Macro, Scott Rudin Productions
Cast: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen Henderson, Jovan Adepo, Russell Hornsby, Mykelti Williamson, Saniyya Sidney
Director: Denzel Washington
Screenwriter
: August Wilson, based on his play
Producers: Scott Rudin, Denzel Washington, Todd Black
Executive producers: Molly Allen, Eli Bush, Aaron L. Gilbert, Jason Cloth, Dale Wells, Charles D. King, Kim Roth
Director of photography: Charlotte Bruus Christensen
Production designer: David Gropman
Costume designer: Sharen Davis
Editor: Hughes Winborne
Music: Marcelo Zarvos
Casting: Victoria Thomas

Rated PG-13, 139 minutes

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