All images courtesy of Paramount Pictures
Adapting a stage play into a film is a tricky game — especially for one as lauded as August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece FENCES. There are dangers that, despite the prestige and numerous accolades connected to the play, it might turn out into a disastrous mess of awards season pandering and high-profile actors having a scenery-eating contest. Case in point: 2013’s August: Osage County starring Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, and a ridiculous list of A-list thespians.
With its dense dialogue and impassioned emotion, Fences could have easily strayed into Osage County territory. Instead, the Denzel Washington-directed drama stays contained, giving us a beautifully painted story that comes in waves of joy and agony about a complicated black man and his devoted wife and fractured relationship with his son in 1950s Pittsburgh.
In the film, Washington plays Troy Maxson, a 53-year-old sanitation worker struggling to provide for his family. He still reflects on his younger days as a great baseball player and how he missed the opportunity to join the major leagues because of his age. His wife, Rose (Viola Davis) remains his rock and loves him unconditionally while he uses tough love to teach his son Cory (Jovan Adepo) how to be a responsible man. As his dreams of glory fade further and further into the distance, Troy begins to unravel and he makes decisions that could make him lose it all.
The fact that Fences is based on a play is a good thing because of it is bubbling over with brilliant dialogue and characters that tell a robust story about race, cultural identity, class, and family — things that are more relevant now more than ever. The fact that Fences is based on a play is a bad thing is because, well, it’s a rendition of a play. It feels like something that should solely exist on stage and by watching it on-screen it feels like there is a certain disservice the film is doing to such incredible source material. It’s as though there’s a certain amount of purity and physical rawness that we are being denied of by watching it on screen rather than on a stage where we can feel the energy of Rose’s tears or the overwhelming intimidation of Troy. And it seems as though Washington knew all of this so instead, he created a fine film that didn’t try hard to recreate the play on screen — and it helped that Wilson himself wrote the script. As a director, Washington is clear and effective and he keeps the film moving along without moving any steam — but as Troy, Washington demands your attention.
The character of Troy is, to be frank, horrible — and no one does horrible like Washington. He doesn’t make Troy a villain, rather a man with broken dreams who refuses to change and wants everyone to stay stagnant with him no matter what it takes. Despite his treatment of his loved ones, there is still a part of him that makes the audience empathize with him, hoping that he will become a better man even though he has reached a point of no return. That said, Washington reaches peak Denzel-ness in his deeply affecting portrayal of Troy.
It’s a shame that they opted to put Davis in contention for the supporting role for awards seasons because as Rose, she is absolutely astonishing. Davis brings unbelievable resilience and dimension to a role that could have easily been written off as a subservient housewife of the ’50s. As Troy’s “ride or die” Rose is a remarkable character. Despite being treated disrespect by Troy, Rose always does the right thing without compromising her strength and maintains the upperhand no matter what he says. Davis as Rose is a revelation and if this doesn’t prove it to you then watch her in the 8-minutes of screen time on Doubt that earned her an Oscar nomination.
Without a doubt, Fences is an exhausting journey that will leave you emotionally drained, but with the perfect amount of hope. The film is a vehicle for the stunning performances delivered by Washington and Davis and a fantastic ensemble that includes Adepo, Mykelti Williamson, and Stephen Henderson. But it is the dynamic leads (who both won Tonys for the revival of the play) that ignite the screen with capital-A acting, making you think that no one else could play these roles. Ever. That said, Fences is a fine film, but it’s the insanely outstanding performances that demand your attention and make it an intense emotional experience.
Running time: 139 minutes
Dino watches too much TV, enjoys reality singing competitions and laughs inappropriately during dramatic films. He’s a fan of comedy, podcasts, and comedy podcasts. He’s a reformed comic book geek and thinks “The Goonies” is the best movie of all time. When he isn’t stuffing his face with a burrito, he’s thinking about his next trip to Disneyland.
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Dino-Ray Ramos | Staff Writer