For his third film as a director, revered actor and mega-movie-star Denzel Washington brings August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning play Fences to the big screen. Fences is the sixth and one of the most lauded entries in Wilson’s Century Cycle of ten plays about the African American experience, each (but one) set in Pittsburgh's Hill District during a different decade of the 20th century. Washington plans to produce movie versions of all the plays in this cycle, and he wisely begins with Fences, for which he and costar Viola Davis won Tony Awards in the 2010 Broadway revival. Reuniting most of the team behind that production—including Davis, producer Scott Rudan, and actors Stephen McKinley Henderson, Russell Hornsby, and Mykelti Williamson—and working from a screenplay adapted by Willson before his death in 2005, Washington’s film captures the spirit and poetry of the text, but lacks the immediacy and transformative power of a live stage performance.
Washington plays Troy Maxson, a former Negro League ballplayer, working as a garbage collector during the late 1950s. Davis plays his stalwart wife, who longs for a better relationship between him and their teenage son Cory, played by Jovan Adepo (the only major cast member not from the 2010 Broadway production). The action takes place primarily in the backyard and the first floor and of the Maxson’s home in the Hill District.
The movie was shot on location in Pittsburgh, but Wilson’s language is specifically written for the stage and it takes a while to settle into the rhythm and sheer weight of Troy’s rapid-fire verbiage on screen. Washington shoots the picture mostly in medium shots and close-ups with an abundance of intercutting during the copious exchanges of dialogue. This directorial choice may be an attempt to make the lyrical monologues feel less incongruous to the naturalistic setting. But the narrow focus has the opposite effect because it prevents viewers from being able to choose whom to look at from moment to moment the way we would when watching a play. We also don’t continuously see the whole set with the titular fence that Troy builds throughout the duration of the story the way we do when it’s sitting on stage for over two hours. Placing the fence so deep into the background robs this key piece of scenery of its shape-shifting ability to serve as a metaphor for the many aspects of the various character relationships.
Of course, transferring an iconic work of theater to the cinema is always a challenge. Many of the best examples—A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), Amadeus (1984), Doubt (2008)—open a play up in significant visual ways. But just as many film adaptations diminish the power of the theatrical works they’re based on when filmmakers try to expand the action onto a cinematic canvas— California Suite (1978), M. Butterfly (1993), August: Osage County (2013). A few brilliant examples exist of plays that were altered just enough to result in a movie nearly identical to the stage production without feeling claustrophobic or histrionic—Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf (1966), The Boys in the Band (1970), Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)—but Washington seems more interested in preserving on film Wilson’s play exactly as written than in transforming it into a motion picture capable of standing on its own as a work of art.
Fortunately he has a tremendous cast, beginning with his own, self-directed rendering of Willson’s bombastic anti-hero. Washington commands the screen with his intense eyes, sonorous voice, and imposing physical presence. But it’s Davis whose modulated performance carries the picture. She slowly brings to the forefront all the facets of complex humanity contained within Rose Maxson—peeling back layer upon layer of the history that’s passed between this husband and wife, the cultural changes they’ve witnessed, and how all that has transpired over the decades has affected her and those she loves. Stephen McKinley Henderson (a veteran of many Wilson productions) gives a note-perfect performance as Troy’s old friend Jim Bono. Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that this role, the least theatrical of the characters, comes off best in the movie version. We learn as much about Troy from watching how Jim quietly responds to him as we do listening to all the passionate words Troy has to say.