Fences is a superb play, with a great cast, that makes for a reasonably solid film.
Fences was adapted by playwright August Wilson from his 1983 Pulitzer-Prize-winning stage play. Although Wilson passed away in 2005, the resulting film is very faithful to that stage-bound sensitivity. Perhaps out of respect for the writer, or out of respect for the story’s origin on the stage, director Denzel Washington never really pushes Fences beyond its source material. Fences has a superb A-list cast, but it never quite feels like a feature film adaptation.
Instead, Fences feels like it is trapped somewhere in the limbo between stage and screen, feeling like one of those adaptations from the earliest days of television when the medium never knew exactly where it fell between those two pillars. Fences retains a tight cast and a very fixed location, much like the stage play. It retains monologues and confrontations that play out over extended scenes that recall theatre rather than taking advantage of cinema’s ability to let time lapse.
To be fair, the cast superb and the source material is impressive. It is easy to understand why Washington adopted such a reverent and respectful approach to the cinematic adaptation. However, Fences never feels like anything more than the sum of its very impressive parts. In fact, it might feel like a little less.
Fences is theatrical in a variety of ways. The bulk of the action unfolds in a very tight geographic area, within the backyard and downstairs section of the Maxson household. As with a stage play, characters come streaming through those familiar sets in a steady rhythm, occasionally overlapping in their stream of interactions with patriarch Troy Maxson. It seems like the entire world descends upon that small plot of land every Friday night.
Fences occasionally ventures beyond the house and the yard. There is a brief introductory scene that offers a glimpse of Troy’s life. At the start of the third act, there are a number of short scenes that unfold in a variety of locations that are otherwise unseen. However, these beats play almost as exposition. Fences allows the camera and the audience to journey beyond the confines of the Maxson household for the bare minimum amount of time.
Again, there are clear thematic reasons for this. Troy Maxson talks at length about how he struggles to get through each week in order to get to the weekend when he can come home and be the king of the proverbial castle. Watching Fences, it is clear that the audience is meant to feel the same suffocating claustrophobia that traps Troy, the sense that this struggling working-class existence has become a prison rather than a palace. Keeping the action focused on one location makes sense from that perspective.
However, this approach doesn’t quite work, for a number of reasons. Most obviously, it becomes increasingly obvious over the course of the film that the house is just as much a prison for the other characters as it is for Troy. Troy steps outside the house on a number of occasions and in a number of different ways, enjoying a freedom that he denies his wife Rose or his son Cory. However, Fences remains focused on Troy as its focal character. It would make more sense to contrast his journeys out into the world by showing more of them.
More than that, Fences falls into the trap of telling rather than showing. To be fair, Washington is working from a script written by August Wilson, so those details are told very well. Indeed, a lot of the exposition that comes from Troy about his history and his life out in the world is clearly intended to be suspect, a man making excuses for his own shortcomings and telling tales that run counter to reality as Rose knows it. Indeed, Rose repeatedly calls Troy upon those fabrications and distortions.
However, entire character arcs play out off-screen featuring unseen characters. Big dramatic beats are relied by characters via dialogue and exposition. While that dialogue is skilfully crafted, there are still more than a few moments when it feels like Troy and his friend Jim are simply repeating facts that both of them already know in order to bring the audience up to speed on events that occurred between any of the extended scenes that comprise the film.
To be fair, these narrative choices make a great deal of sense for a stage play. In fact, they are part of the theatrical shorthand, where putting on the same show night after night in the same space encourages writers to cut down upon unnecessary set changes and to restrict the cast and to pick each scene to the brim rather than transitioning quickly between scenes. These are all part of the language of theatre. Wilson’s script and Washington’s direction port those elements over without any hesitation or translation.
After all, cinema is a different language than theatre. The act of adapting something from one medium to another involves some degree of change and revision in order to tell the story in the most effective manner possible in the medium employed. Washington is a solid director, but there is a lot of restraint to his choices. The camera focuses on the actors rather than guiding the audience. The most dynamic shots involve either a slow pan down or a slow pan up to fill an awkward silence between two members of the cast.
However, Fences still plays reasonably well in spite of these problems, often feeling more like a prestige television production for the BBC or HBO rather than a major cinema release. Wilson’s dialogue flows very well, and the story has a lot of emotive power. Fences is the story of generational conflict, the transition from the fifties into the sixties, as an old family patriarch stews in resentment of his own missed opportunities and punishes his family members for his shortcomings. (It is also the story of a man who won’t build a fence.)
Everything in Fences is a metaphor or a piece of symbolism or a signal of some description. Even the basic act of building a fence around a yard is presented as a metaphor for Troy’s troubled relationship with Rose and their alternate approaches to family. “You know, some people build fences to keep people out,” reflects Jim at one point in the story. “Other folks build fences to keep people in.” Even a simple act of DIY becomes an act of incredible passive-aggressiveness.
There is a lot more where that came from. Troy’s brother suffered a head injury in the Second World War, and believes himself to be an angel. His name? Gabriel. Gabe spends most of the movie carrying around a trumpet, just in case. Rose is repeatedly presented with a rose, leading to the slow pan to a dead rose on the cold earth. Even tending family garden, Rose cannot resist a passive aggressive marital metaphor, complaining that there is nothing that can grow in the “stony” earth of Troy’s heart.
Sometimes, this can get a little much. At one point Cory shows up wearing a jacket with his graduation year on it, just to reaffirm that the audience are watching a film set in the sixties. At the next scene transition, the camera takes pains to pan across photographs of Martin Luther King Junior and President John F. Kennedy, stopping just short of screaming “sixties!” at the camera. The content of these scenes is enough to underscore that transition from one decade to the next, the generational strife. However, Fences is far too heavy-handed.
However, there is also a charm to these metaphors. August Wilson uses all of this symbolism to craft an archetypal tale of generational conflict drawn in the broadest possible terms. Indeed, the conflict between Troy and the world around him has a surprising resonance outside of the story’s specific time and place. Towards the end of the second decade of the twentieth century, it feels entirely appropriate to focus on an ageing generation’s resentment of the idealism and enthusiasm of youth, the spite that drives important life-changing decisions.
It also helps that Washington has assembled a fantastic cast. Most obviously, Washington anchors the film as Troy. Washington relishes the dialogue that he has been given, the anger and bitterness that have turned Troy into a bitter shell of a hateful man. Washington delivers those monologues with incredible power. Indeed, watching Washington chew on those metaphors demonstrates the appeal of his approach to directing the film. Fences feels like a great play into which an actor might sink their teeth; why risk changing that?
Washington is matched effortlessly by Viola Davis as Rose. Davis arguably has the much less showy role. Troy breaks into every scene in which he appears, owning the play even in those few scenes where he is absent. The other characters react or arrange themselves around him, something that Rose explicitly notes. Davis only gets a handful of big dramatic moments, and she hits every one out of the park. More than that, Davis helps to centre Rose even in the quieter scenes that are dominated by Washington as Troy.
Fences has a great deal of energy and power, even if the film isn’t properly calibrated to channel those elements. Watching Washington and Davis work through those metaphor and explore those simmering hatreds, it seems like Fences would make a truly phenomenal stage adaptation. Unfortunately, it is merely a solid film.