FENCES is a powerful and engaging family drama, supported by a terrific cast at the top of their game. However, despite the performances, Denzel Washington‘s translation of his fellow performer’s stage appearances always seems a little fenced in cinematically by its theatrical origin.
Washington directs and stars as Troy Maxson, the patriarch of an African-American family in 1950s Pittsburgh. He rails against the injustices of being made to hang off the back of his garbage truck rather than driving it; and never making it to Major League Baseball, despite considerable talent shown in America’s segregated ‘Negro Leagues’. He’s the dominant figure in a household comprising his wife Rose (Viola Davis) and son Cory (Jovan Adepo). Passing through frequently are his estranged elder son, Lyons (Russell Hornsby), friend Bono (Stephen Henderson) and his mentally impaired brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson).
The main strength of FENCES is its theatrical source, but the visual adaptation feels lacking given the head-start it has on story, script and cast.
The adult cast are almost all drawn from the 2013 Broadway revival of August Wilson’s play. As one might expect with a stage adaptation, there is plenty of chewy dialogue for the considerable acting talent on display. The majority of this goes to Washington’s Troy, who delivers a number of didactic monologues on the nature of life, work, family and opportunity. It’s a dense concoction of themes, and as Troy compulsively revisits his frustrations we learn more of his path and outlook as his life story emerges. Even so, the visual uniformity of these scenes occasionally dampens the impact of Washington’s performance and the revelations that arrive. In the opening scene, for example, Washington’s natural blocking and easy camera movement add much to what is essentially people talking in the garden. However, the same patterns are too often repeated for other Troy-based moments, which almost become monotonous Denzel showcases. The main strength of FENCES is its theatrical source, but the visual adaptation feels lacking given the head-start it has on story, script and cast.
A stand-out amongst that cast is Viola Davis, whose performance is the strongest, [...] always bearing the weight of the chip on Troy’s shoulder…
A stand-out amongst that cast is Viola Davis, whose performance is the strongest, even though she works with a fraction of the dialogue given to Washington. Always bearing the weight of the chip on Troy’s shoulder, but trying to do what is right, the strength of Davis’ Rose is in her emotional range. However charged the other performances may be – bringing tangible weight to the Pulitzer-winning material – Davis is the one that seems to escape the theatre stage.
FENCES is often reminiscent of Tommy Lee Jones‘ THE SUNSET LIMITED, a television adaptation of a Cormac McCarthy play directed by Jones and co-starring Samuel L Jackson. As with FENCES, the adaptation is visually limited, depending too much on its engaging leads and their philosophical musing and flexing of jaw muscles. FENCES achieves much more in content and theme, but its deficiencies have the same root.
For all the talent on display in writing and acting, FENCES never quite transcends its source: handicapped by its reluctance to stray too far from its reassuringly successful story and cast. When all is said and done, FENCES finds itself sitting on one on of its own making.