August Wilson’s Fences has had a long journey from stage to screen, outliving many a director’s career and the life of the playwright himself. But now it has arrived, virtually intact, in the capable hands of Denzel Washington. He played Troy Maxson, a raging bull of working-class resentment, back on Broadway, opposite Viola Davis as his empathetic wife Rose; they reprise their roles here, with Washington taking on directing duties, too. This isn’t his first feature (that would be 2002’s little remembered Antwone Fisher) but, as a result of using Wilson’s own screenplay, written many years ago, there’s been some criticism over this adaptation’s inherent staginess. Much of the action of Fences is confined to Troy’s back yard, as he alternates between spinning tall tales to his best friend Jim (Stephen Henderson); berating his sons, Cory (Jovan Adepo) and Lyons (Russell Hornsby); and showering his wife with affection. There are long scenes of dialogue and very little in the way of period glamour and cinematic spectacle.
Yet it’s doubtful whether Fences could be made in any other way. Wilson’s play is a dense and meaty treat, populated with the kind of wonderful dialogue that could only come from a man who grew up in the underclass of a racially divided America, who taught himself to write by reading and listening to jazz and blues and real conversations from older men in black Pittsburgh. Washington essentially recreates the play in full, with flat, unfussy visual intentions. But he chooses each of his shots carefully – all intended to capture the performances in full, like having the best seats in the theatre.
And it’s all about the performances. While slightly lacking the terrifying gravitas of James Earl Jones, Washington is fantastic as Troy, blustering with nuance and grace, at once a misty-eyed ball of regret and a ruthless tyrant. Davis, too, deserves all the plaudits she can get as Rose, giving a typical performance of good humour, dignity, and aching vulnerability. They, along with an outstanding supporting cast, ensure that Fences will at least be remembered as a venerable showcase of acting talent.
Admittedly, that might be all it is, since almost all of Washington’s attempts at cinematic flourish – be it through impressionistic lighting, atmospheric music, or montages of time passing – fall flat, in that they can’t measure up to the craft of Wilson’s language. Another director, such as Charles Burnett, might have wrung more poetry out of things, but perhaps at the cost of dramatic integrity. As it stands, this is a fine play, brought to life in a supremely satisfying way.
Fences is released nationwide on Friday 10th February 2017.
Watch the trailer for Fences here: