Tanya Dudnikova reviews Denzel Washington’s powerful adaptation of August Wilson’s play – now nominated for 4 Oscars, with Viola Davis earning a Best Supporting Actress BAFTA.
Fences has been in the making for decades. There has been talk of a movie adaptation for August Wilson’s play of the same name since its premiere thirty-three years ago. All previous efforts to bring the powerful story to the screen had been futile; the most memorable came shortly after the play won the Pulitzer Prize back in 1987, when Eddie Murphy was attached to play Cory, on the thinking that the role would give him the chance to tackle some serious material for a change. The project fell through, mainly due to Wilson’s firm insistence on hiring an African-American director. Other attempts were equally fruitless. It seemed as though perhaps Fences was destined to remain on the stage, where it seemed to fit best. Wilson did manage to complete the screenplay before his death in 2005, but did not live to see what would become of it.
Skip forward to 2017 and Fences is, at long last, out in cinemas. The key to its making came in the shape of Denzel Washington, who produces, directs, and stars in what can surely be termed his ‘passion project’. Reprising his role from the 2010 Broadway revival of the play, Washington is Troy Maxton, former baseball star in the professional “Negro Leagues”, current middle-aged garbage collector in Pittsburgh. He struggles through life in 1950s America, living each day just to be able to get to the next Friday. Also returning from the award-winning Broadway cast is Viola Davis, whose turn as Troy’s stoic and graceful wife Rose is possibly the best take-away from the film. No-nonsense Rose is the anchor holding the film together, never leaving Troy’s side, for better or for worse.
While there is no weak link amongst the stellar actors, it is undoubtedly the two leads that lift the film to a different dimension through their mammoth performances. Troy’s character arc is particularly moving. Starting out as a sympathetic, if somewhat flawed, husband and father to teenage son Cory (Jovan Adepo), we soon begin to realise that he is a man ravaged by guilt and disappointment, by chances missed and opportunities not taken. He is perpetually bitter, certain his baseball career never blossomed due to the colour of his skin – just one of the metaphorical ‘fences’ within the film – though the suggestion is that the real reason was his age. “It’s not easy for me to admit that I’ve been standing in the same place for eighteen years!” he says, and you would be heartless not to feel sorry for him at this point.
Thematically, Fences is surprisingly straightforward, and offers little in terms of ambiguity or equivocality. Racial and domestic tensions take centre stage in this character-driven drama, and many of the conflicts it explores are still relevant today. Also prevalent – maybe a little too prevalent to remain interesting until the end – are all the fence-related allusions and symbols. “Some people build fences to keep people out, and other people build fences to keep people in,” Troy says resentfully as he banishes Cory from the family home. But by that point, the explanation seems contrived and superfluous; Wilson’s speeches are too verbose to engage us for the entirety of the film’s hefty runtime of 2h 19min.
It seems as though Washington’s hard work has paid off, however, with Fences raking in four Oscar nominations at the 89th Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Actor (Washington), Best Supporting Actress (Davis) and Best Adapted Screenplay. The placement of Davis in the Supporting Actress category has attracted some debate, with some arguing it’s a tactical choice and others suggesting it’s appropriate. Interestingly, in the initial Broadway production back in 1987, Mary Alice (who originated the role of Rose) won Best Feature Actress in a Play, while for the 2010 revival Davis contended in and won the Best Actress in a Play race. Both actresses were billed below the title – which usually signals a supporting performance – but in 2010 the administration committee ruled that the role was really a leading one. Hmmmm.
However, among the array of praise and awards, there lies one recurring, inescapable criticism: despite Washington’s respectable directorial efforts, Fences simply can’t transcend its stage roots. In a negative review, David Edelstein of New York Magazine/Vulture hits the nail on the head: “It’s not cinematic enough to make you forget you’re watching something conceived for another, more spatially constricted medium, but it’s too cinematic to capture the intensity, the concentration, of a great theatrical event.” The vast majority of the action takes place within the confines of Troy’s house and backyard, surrounded by the symbolic garden fence that gives the play its title. Outside their domestic sphere, we hardly get a glimpse of the characters’ lives. While the narrowed setting, coupled with intense close-ups and weighty monologues, effectively reflects the sense of confinement that the film tries so hard to convey, the end result looks suspiciously like a filmed Broadway performance. One cannot help but wonder what would have happened if Washington had decided to explore other avenues. After all, Fences had so much potential.
Fences is out now in UK cinemas. See the trailer below, and join us for a screening next Thursday in collaboration with DramaSoc.