Denzel Washington directs his first film since 2007’s The Great Debaters with Fences, an adaptation of August Wilson’s play of the same title. He also stars as Troy Maxson, a garbage man stymied by life in 1950s Pittsburgh. Troy is expansive to the point of domineering and stern in that mid-century way we now identify as “abusive”. He was a talented baseball player but he came to the game too late in life to go pro, though Troy’s worldview only allows for color as the defining limit of his life. Since August Wilson adapted his own script, Fences comes to the stage almost entirely intact, including Wilson’s beautiful language and scenery-chewing monologues, and as Troy Washington does some of his finest acting work in recent memory.
As a director, Washington pretty much just stages the play on location in Pittsburgh, and the film version is conceptualized strictly as an actor’s showcase. Viola Davis, who plays Troy’s wife Rose, is going to win an Oscar for a slam-dunk scene in which she out-acts everyone else in the movie. (Her aggressive steak-eating in Suicide Squad deserves an honorable mention, though.) Washington uses a lot of medium setups and close-ups, and doesn’t move his cameras around much, which allows Actors! To! Act! but has the unfortunate side effect of making Fences ironically hemmed in, like the cameras are nailed to the floor.
Washington is a passable director, but his instincts are to go for the face and stay there—pretty common with actor/directors—so there’s not much in the way of visual storytelling or, really, anything cinematic about this movie at all. I’d be curious to see Washington actually stage Fences in the theater, because there’s no real attempt to make it a proper film happening. For instance, there’s a crane shot at the end that is completely ruined by an egregious editing choice that destroys the visual metaphor being set up. That’s the kind of thing that would make Fences more cinematic and less like a filmed play.
Here’s where I get grumpy and insist that the theater and cinema are two different narrative forms that function differently, and you can’t just “film a play” and expect a good movie to come out the other side. Yes, Wilson’s gorgeous monologues are present and yes, the acting is very good across the board, especially from Washington and Davis. And yes, this is a worthy story about a family at not only personal crossroads but also political ones, when a father who came of age during a different era can’t—or won’t—see the new opportunities opening up for his son, and women aren’t liberated enough for a mother’s permission to mean anything outside the kitchen. There is surely a great Fences movie to be made.
But it isn’t this version. It’s too staged and restricted, sticking to the stage setting of “Exterior: Yard” and “Interior: House”. The best scene is the opening one in which Troy and Bono (Stephen Henderson) are on their garbage route, Troy holding forth like a blue collar philosopher-king. This scene pops because they’re DOING SOMETHING, engaged in an activity that gives the camera a chance to move and the characters a chance to express themselves outside of words. This is the unique element cinema offers storytellers—the visual component.
The garbage truck scene exists in the “real world” of Fences, where these characters interact with others outside the main story and go places and touch things and move around like real people. It’s grounded and tangible and has the flavor of a routine, of lives being lived in a particular rhythm, day in, day out (the film’s still embargoed but this is something Paterson does really well). And this is missing from the entire rest of the movie, which mostly locks characters into tiny spaces and gives them little else to do but monologue at each other. That works in the theater because it’s a limited visual space and so dialogue becomes the primary form of storytelling. It doesn’t work for a film, which commands a much bigger space and broader palette.
But look, bottom line, Fences isn’t bad. Washington and Davis are so good they make up for the claustrophobic feel of the movie. And the Maxson family saga is tragic enough to make for compelling drama even in a limited space. August Wilson is a great playwright and Fences is a great play, and that foundation holds up even in a sort of dull film adaptation. It would have been nice for Washington to take some more chances with the settings and the camera, to let the film breathe on its own away from the play, but even a hidebound interpretation of Fences is better than 97% of what is currently in theaters.