Release Date: December 16th, 2016
Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Directed by: Denzel Washington
Written by: August Wilson
Starring: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen Henderson, Jovan Adepo, Russell Hornsby, Mykelti Williamson, and Saniyya Sidney
Fences was a 1983 Pulitzer Prize-winning play written by August Wilson, part of his "Pittsburgh Cycle" focusing on the black experience in 20th Century America. The film adaptation reunites Denzel Washington and Viola Davis in the lead roles of Troy and Rose Maxson that won them Tony Awards in 2010.
The story's focus is on Troy Maxson, a garbage collector and former Negro League baseball player embittered at losing his chance to play in the Major Leagues. He wants his teenaged son Cory to get an education and a decent job so that he doesn't end up like his father. The Maxson house always appears busy with guests and family visiting. Among the people who stop by the include Troy's co-worker Jim Bono, Troy's grown son from a previous relationship who is trying to make it as a musician, and his brother Gabriel who has severe psychological damage from a war injury. Throughout the film, Troy expounds his opinions on life, death, romance, and responsibility. He's an engaging, powerful personality that draws in everyone around him like moths to a flame, but as he's aged it's clear that the slings and arrows of fortune have made him as cynical and disaffected as he is realistic and animated.
It's not all bad news though. Wilson's script shows how the lives of African Americans slowly improved from previous generations. Rose reminds Troy that Cory has a much better chance of making it as an athlete than his father did, and that there are black baseball and football players in the professional leagues. And when Troy questions the garbage company for only having white drivers, management makes him the the first black driver in the city (despite the fact that he doesn't have a license, leading to some great moments of dialogue). Looking at it through this small bubble, life could be a lot worse for the Maxsons. So when tragedy strikes, it's not an external force that affects them, but consequences from Troy's own choices.
The acting in this movie is phenomenal and some of the best you'll see on stage or screen. Washington brings some smart directing and a powerful performance that reminds us why he won a Tony for this performance. Troy Maxson is not so much a character as a force of nature, with frequent monologues where he espouses his often-sensible world views. That's why it's such a shock to the audience that a man who preaches the importance of responsibility would eventually fall due to a major indiscretion. Maxson is the king of his own castle, which makes his descent Shakespearean.
Adapting plays to film is a tricky prospect, but film gives great artistic freedom in how the script should be blocked. Directors are no longer burdened by the limitations of a stage, and can now move and film freely in larger locations. But Fences is an intimate affair, and we rarely leave the house or backyard of the Maxson home. It's sometimes strange to watch a film that is almost entirely dialogue and where the audience sees every speaking character at the same time. It's become very common for most films to cut back and forth between speaking characters during discussions, but true to a stage play Fences presents with large tableaus rather than frequent cuts or montages. It knows its strength is in its dialogue and actors, and it doesn't want to distract us from their performances.
Fences is a great film adaptation of a powerful play. In a world where film has become so kinetic and rushed, it's nice to see something that actually paces itself. This is not a popcorn flick. and doesn't deserve to be watched like one. I highly recommend checking it out while it's still in theaters.