Director: Denzel Washington
Starring: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Jovan Adepo, Russell Hornsby, Mykelti Williamson
Run Time: 139 mins
‘Fences’ is anadaptation of August Wilson’s Pulitzer-prize winning stage play with Denzel Washington and Viola Davis reprising their roles from the 2010 Broadway revival. It details the story of Troy Maxson, a working-class African-American waste collector who tries to provide for his family in 1950’s Pittsburgh. He has a clear sense of morals and at times, he can be utterly ferocious towards his sons and the first trailer that came out is a brilliant example of this where he tells his younger son that he hasn’t got to like him but still provides for him. Troy used to play baseball after being released from prison and found that he was naturally talented at it but failing to make it to the Major League Baseball due to what he thinks is because of his race, attempts to stop his son from participating in the sport as he fears the same will happen to him. His wife, Rose Lee played by Viola Davis stays at home and is faithful to her husband whilst trying to raise her son at the same time. The film is a character study primarily into Washington’s character who begins to find himself conflicted in events in his life. I’m quite divided over my opinion of Denzel Washington – sometimes he can be quite good in a role but a lot of the time, I find him extremely obnoxious and quite full of himself. In ‘Fences’, not only is he acting, he also directs it. Listening to interviews and the marketing of ‘Fences’, I feared that this was going to be the case and I got the impression that he only really made the film to honour August Wilson and to hopefully squeeze an Oscar or two out of it too. The film has received considerable Awards attention for Best Picture, Washington and Davis’ performances and Wilson’s script.
The big problems that hinders ‘Fences’ for a considerable amount of its lengthy run time is that it isn’t particularly cinematic. Straight off the bat, the film felt this way and the film made me want to be in a theatre experiencing this narrative on stage. For the first half an hour or so, this is particularly problematic but I began to settle into the film when its narrative kicked in and through its excellent performances. Even when the film settles, it can still never quite shake off this feeling. Funnily enough, it is in the film’s quieter moments where it isn’t so dialogue-laden that it begins to feel more cinematic and it is on the strength of August Wilson’s screenplay which is a terrific piece of work that the film overall just about works.
The performances are of course, universally strong and help to propel the film from its stagey-feel which is testament to August Wilson’s script which develops its characters superbly and is very memorable. All of the characters get moments to shine and they are all paramount in making this story work – there isn’t a character in the film just for the sake of it. . Denzel Washington’s performance, which was considered to be the direct rival to Casey Affleck in ‘Manchester By The Sea‘ in the Best Actor race, is generally very good but I did find that for the first half-an-hour, the film solely focussed on him and I began to get quite annoyed with his character. When Washington chooses to divert the limelight away from himself, he is very nuanced and a little more subtle and despite his character being flawed, I did sympathise with him which is testament to the performance. Viola Davis is the standout here and she gets many opportunities to act Washington off with plenty of tears and snot to convey her emotions.
Although both of these actors have received the most praise for their work here, I found the supporting cast to be equally as powerful and there are some superb performances, particularly from Mykelti Williamson as Troy’s brother who has sustained a head injury when fighting in World War II that has left him mentally challenged. His character is so well-developed and I was really touched by his interactions with other characters in the film and there is a particularly powerful sequence near the end of the film where he requires help eating which really stayed with me after the film ended. It’s a great piece of cinema and is one of the quieter moments in the film and consequently, one of the more cinematic moments. Jovan Adepo as Cory, Troy and Rose’s son is very good here too and is a very conflicted, almost Shakespearean-like character who lacks guidance in his life and constantly clashes with his father and the final scene in the film is also very powerful due to his performance and his feelings on his father. Stephen McKinley Henderson, who has appeared in many August Wilson plays on the stage has some great lines here too.
The score by Marcelo Zarvos doesn’t develop until very late in the film but it has some calming, melodic moments that help resonate with the events being portrayed on-screen. I was really impressed by Charlotte Bruus Christensen’s cinematography who really makes the most of the house as the primary location and she isn’t afraid to hold onto a shot for dramatic effect rather than resorting to quick cuts. The whole film feels quite claustrophobic and confined where characters don’t get a lot of freedom to move around the frame. If there’s anything that helps aid the film becoming more cinematic, her camera work is certainly the most significant factor. You wouldn’t get this sense of perspective whilst watching this on a stage. It’s a big improvement from her work on ‘The Girl on the Train‘ which I had problems with its cinematography.
Overall, I did like ‘Fences’ on the strength of its script and performances but the problem with the film’s intentions of being a film still remain. It feels very conflicted for the most part of its running time and it took me a long time to settle into it and go with it. The film is overlong and I think the film would be harder-hitting if it was perhaps 20 minutes shorter. I also think Washington overcooks the ending which for the most part is a very interesting progression in the story but then its final moments are particularly contrived. But is ‘Fences’ Academy Award material? No, I don’t think it is and it is one of the weaker entries in this year’s Best Picture nominees but I suspect it has been nominated due to Washington’s relationship with the Academy, its acting and as an honour to August Wilson. It’s powerful in places but the biggest problem is its lack of cinematic quality.