Overview: Based on August Wilson’s Pulitzer-Prize winning play, Fences examines the struggles of an aging black man in the 1950s as he tries to provide for his family, while his personal failures isolate him. Paramount Pictures; 2016; Rated PG-13; 139 minutes.
August Personage: We’d be hard pressed to find a writer who so exquisitely captured the voices of black Americans during the 20th century like August Wilson. Wilson’s works carry blackness within their very punctuation, each break, stammer, or interruption illuminating a great soul of humanity, each one beautiful, damaged, and as individually complex as the laws, regulations, and heritage that led to its particular existence. August Wilson’s Fences is undoubtedly a masterpiece that finds truth in the subjects of family, success, and age that made up black identity, and that still make up that identity. The language he created not only feels real, but the stories these people tell through that language feel equally real, as do the emotions that follow. We feel that reality as we listen to Troy Maxson talk about the love his father denied him, while failing to see that he’s done the same to his son. We also feel that reality as we listen to Rose talk about how she planted all her hopes and dreams in a man she didn’t know would never allow them to grow. Wilson’s dialogue acts as offerings to the black experience, experiences that so many of us know personally or tangentially. Fences, the play, is a masterpiece not simply because it’s about us, but because for so many, it is us. As a masterpiece, the film adaptation is placed within a tough position critically, as we’re challenged to weigh Wilson’s greatness against a word-for-word adaptation, and determine whether those two elements can be separated.
Play for Today: As director, Denzel Washington was faced with the challenge of taking something great, something well-read, seen, and celebrated, and finding a way to take what works about the play and making that work as a movie. Instead of taking this as an opportunity to approach the work from a new angle, Washington presents Fences in as literal a transition from stage to screen as he could possibly create. The dialogue remains unchanged from the original text, with the understanding that to do so would be to change the very soul of the work. The sets and stage directions are also largely unchanged so that every movement these characters make in and out of the frame feels calculated as if designed for a live audience. And the pacing deliberately points towards act breaks, so much so that it’s hard not to expect an intermission after the climax and for our repertoire of players to come out and take a bow during the closing credits. Even aspects that would perhaps invite cinematic experimentation, such the score or the camera angles, are deliberately restrained, no more than orchestration or blocking. While the sets are richly textured and decorated, and the costumes well-worn and point to the inner lives of these characters, there’s a feeling of production to the whole ordeal that makes it impossible to forget we’re ever watching anything except for a play. Yet, it’s difficult to pinpoint Washington’s fault in this, and while these elements of production listed may be read as marks against the film, they aren’t. Instead they are points of interest, meant to highlight a (perhaps) impossibility in adapting a play for screen with the intention of showcasing what made the work great in the first place to a larger audience who isn’t seeing stage productions, perhaps who can’t afford them or lacks the exposure, but who this play is very much about. It’s well-worth thinking about that when we have these celebrated black works meant for stage, that there’s a vast majority of black people who will never have access to them. While Fences could be attributed as a vanity project after Washington enjoyed such success on stage with the play, there’s such a reservation in the film to do anything more than what Wilson allotted, that the whole experience could be seen as a selfless means of providing the closest concentration of August Wilson’s Fences to a wider audience.
Our Town: While we could talk in circles around the subject of what a successful adaptation entails, there’s no questioning the level of acting on display in Fences. Denzel Washington and Viola Davis each enjoyed success as Troy and Rose Maxson in a Tony-award winning run of the play in 2010. As a result, these actors feel comfortable within their roles, lived in and roughed up in such a way that these characters’ eighteen-year history together feels like more than a line of dialogue. Going back to the sense of stage directions the film’s movements evoke, distracting in their deliberateness or not, they do illuminate these characters and speak directly to the film’s themes of isolation and building walls to keep people in and out. There’s meaning in the way Troy fills out a door frame, meaning in Rose’s place in the kitchen and dining room for nearly the film’s entire runtime. The actors understand this importance of place, so much so that even the film’s supporting characters are given plenty of space within the frame to add to the collective realism of the piece. While we may not hear his name during Awards season, Stephen Henderson gives one of the best supporting performances of the year as Troy’s friend and confidante Bono. His performance not only speaks to Wilson’s careful crafting of characters, but also Washington’s attitude as a director. As impressive, moving, and yes, awards worthy, as the film’s climactic confrontation between Troy and Rose is, there’s no showboating in Fences, no chewing of the scenery, and even the characters with the fewest lines are given the opportunity to feel big. While Washington doesn’t take many chances with direction in this film, he is considerably giving to his cast, knowing right when to push in or pull out to give viewers the most of these performances and the most of August Wilson. Fences, in its efforts to be little more than a play on screen, ends up becoming an actor’s paradise, offering little distraction from the purity of language and performance at stake here.
Overall: As an adaptation, the purpose of Fences isn’t immediately discernable, and it’s a subject worth revisiting in the future. While it lacks the cinematic awe that sends us to the movies, and its stage-pacing prevents any feeling of immediacy, there’s an undeniable sense of good work being done in a wide-released performance of August Wilson’s work. And with these performances at bat, it’s far easier to celebrate its greatness than to begrudge its ambition. Fences may not change the stage to screen adaptation process, but it may very well change the way we think about them and what we appreciate most about them.
Featured Image: Paramount Pictures