I’m struggling to pinpoint exactly what people mean when they complain that the Denzel Washington-directed adaptation of August Wilson’s infamous work Fences never transcends its limitations as a filmed version of a stage play. I don’t necessarily disagree with the criticism, but it’s difficult to say exactly why not. Washington does an exceptional job of injecting motion in the film’s camera work when necessary, but bottling up the tension of most scenes in a cramped backyard for the majority of the runtime. I wouldn’t say that this aspect of the film is a “limitation;” it’s more of a necessity that heightens the claustrophobic nature of the material, a common aspect of the best filmed play adaptations I can conjure: The Bad Seed, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Birthday Party, etc. The massive volume of dialogue over the limited stage direction/action might also be a potential factor in that complaint as well, but it’d be foolish to ask for any less of the dramatic masterclass Denzel Washington & Viola Davis run in the their roles as a troubled married couple in 1950s Pittsburgh. The only thing I could point to in Fences, a movie produced from a screenplay Wilson himself penned before his death in 2005, that feels limited by its source material is the blatant way it approaches metaphor & symbolism. In any work written specifically for the screen, a line like “Some people build fences to keep people out, and some people build fences to keep people in,” would stick out like a sore thumb as being too obvious and unnatural. It’s a line that works within Fences‘s context as a stage play adaptation, though. It makes sense considering the project’s origins, but in a way that points to its limitations as an adaptation that other spacial or dialogue-based complaints don’t.
Within that spiritually uncinematic framework, Fences shines as an intense character study for an emotionally (and sometimes physically) abusive father figure who stands as a tyrant in his own home. Troy Maxson, brought to life by a top-of-his-game Denzel, is a boisterous garbage man & former minor league baseball player who’s “got more stories than the Devil has sinners.” In the world at large, Troy is trivialized, diminished, and overtly oppressed. Even as a garbage man, he’s second class to white garbage men. At his home and on his block, though, he rules over his subjects like a tyrannical king. The entire mood of the home depends on whatever whim Troy is currently following. When he’s loudly bullshitting about physically conquering the personification of Death in a literal wrestling match (another moment of stage play artificiality), his proud command of everyone’s attention means lifted spirits and a moment of ease. When he’s frustratedly stomping around his modest domain looking for something to be angry about, his small world cowers under the threat of his potential abuses. The world has treated Troy like total shit, but Fences makes it clear that his perpetuation of that cycle of abuse within his own home is inexcusable. His wife Rose, played by an equally top shape Viola Davis, can barely hold the family together under the oppressive weight of Troy’s demanding, selfish persona. She constantly preparesq meals within the couple’s cramped kitchen throughout the film as an exercise of peacekeeping that can only last for so long before Troy topples it over in a fit of misdirected rage.
Well, I thought August Wilson’s construction of Troy as a villainous presence within his own home was a clear intent at the heart of Fences, anyway. Much to my horror, a significant portion of the audience surrounding me at our screening of Fences was mumbling in agreement with many of Troy’s tirades. I don’t know if he reminded them if their own father figures or of their own badly dealt hand in life, but Troy’s obvious (to me) caricature of Toxic Masculinity Personified was somehow lost on a large portion of that room. So maybe that points to my initial complaint that the blatant metaphor of stage play dramas being too obvious for naturalistic cinema being just as off-base as any other choices Denzel Washington made in his adaptation of a play he obviously reveres on a deeply personal level. Pushing aside any concerns with Fences‘s uncinematic tone, strange sense of pacing, and iffy final moments of redemption for a despicably cruel character (that seems to go even further than the source material in their cautious forgiveness), there’s a lot worth praising in what Washington & his small cast of supporting players accomplish here. Besides the obvious merit of bringing a play he greatly respects to a much wider audience who would not have had the opportunity to see he & Davis perform on stage, Washington does the quintessential thing actors-turned-directors are often accused of: crafting a work as an actor’s showcase above all other concerns. I may have some reservations about Fences being suitable for a big screen adaptation on a tonal, almost spiritual level (although I do very much appreciate the play as a text), but there’s no denying the power of the performances Washington brings to the screen with the project. The film is very much worth a look just for that virtue alone. I’m just afraid the massive audience he brought it to might have identified more with his monstrous performance as Troy more than he intended, thanks to Denzel’s inherent Movie Star™ charm. The people surrounding me responded that way, anyway, and it was just as terrifying to hear as anything Troy had to say onscreen.