A fantastic, heartbreaking and award worthy adaptation of August Wilson's classic. It's important and should not go unrecognised.
There’s no denying that at this very time in our existence, race persists to be a searingly hot topic. Politically it has continued to dominate the lips of those in power, socially it has brought debate and conflict, and in Hollywood it has questioned the very foundations of its setup. With this in consideration, Fences could not have come at a more important time. Combining racial tensions, familial bonds and simply life as a black man raising a family in the 1950’s, Denzel Washington’s third feature length directorial effort adapted from August Willson’s seminal, pulitzer-winning play has come into existence as more than just a film.
Set in the 50’s as part of Wilson’s ‘Pittsburgh cycle’ of works, Fences is very much a character study of Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington), a garbage truck disposal man whose life revolves around his work and the raising of his family, particularly his son (Jovan Adepo). Troy is very much a man of routine, working Monday to Friday alongside lifelong friend Bono (Stephen Henderson), looking forward to the weekend where he and Bono would share a bottle of Gin and spin great yarns, weaving half-drunkenly between intricate narratives and jovial humour, to then shack up with his loving wife (Viola Davis), rinse and repeat.
Fences has faced a tough time making it’s way to the big screen. Having a tortured path all the way from 1987 when Eddie Murphy was linked along with director Norman Jewison, but with Wilson’s firm and stubborn belief that only a black man should adapt his play to film, that vision never came to fruition. With the likes of Spike Lee and Barry Levinson also passing up the chance to helm the project, it took until it’s 2010 stage revival with Washington and Davis as it’s leads for it to take form and finally reach here. Whether or not you agree with Wilson’s firm opinion on the matter, it cannot be ignored that the opportunities for black filmmakers amongst other roles in Hollywood are severely lacking. Furthermore, you cannot fault Washington’s earnest and heartfelt approach. The play itself does not exactly lend to a cinematic re-telling, with its story focused on monologues and conversations in and around the same locations, namely Troy’s house and backyard.
Whilst this restriction is not successfully evaded, it doesn’t take away from the fiercely powerful journey. Directed in completely and deliberately un-showy fashion, Washington has effortlessly maintained the emotion and conflict that made the play and its broadway adaptation so rich and widely adored. Washington has continuously said that he had no intention of altering any of what Wilson had written, with Wilson earning the only writing credit and in Washington’s attempt to stay true to those words and that vision, he does away with directorial flair and technical wizardry and instead provides a platform for his actors. Bringing together nearly the whole cast from the broadway revival again for the adaptation, nobody skips a beat. In a story that requires us to form a deep bond with the characters onscreen and their lives, the choice to recast the people who had been working together on this for such a long time was a shrewd and fantastic move. The Tony-winning cast are all on awe-inspiring form. Largely commanding the first half of the movie, Washington’s Troy is a role that is deeply unflattering (and rightly so) but is just as achingly heartbreaking and complex as Wilson intended. A man whose life has been riddled with pain, persecution and resentment but also love, Washington interweaves all of these aspects into a role where his character is simultaneously understandable and devastatingly flawed.
However, this is far from just the Denzel show and just as he manages to recreate the emotions that first surface in the stage revival, so does Viola Davis. Davis is a tremendously gifted actress and here, she bares all in a performance that will not fail to produce a lump in your throat. As Troy’s lovingly faithful and supportive wife of 18 years, Davis’ Rose is a wonderfully written and equally well performed character. Knitted together by her love for her family and understanding of Troy, Rose’s life is intrinsically linked to Troy and the story. This is perhaps the reason that when the landmine erupts halfway through the movie, it hits us just as hard. As Davis moves towards the centre of the story, her performance grows into one that breaks and challenges us. As the Oscars loom, it would be a crying shame if her work was overlooked as there hasn’t been a performance (which is arguably a leading role) which has overcome her’s thus far.
As well as of Davis and Washington, the rest of the cast provide real authenticity and warmth to the film. Stephen Henderson’s ‘Bono’ is charming and real, his relationships with the other characters feel worn and lived in. Mykelti Williamson’s work as Gabriel, a man who suffers from brain damage, is wonderfully judged and not as distracting as it could have been. Both Russell Hornsby and Jovan Adepo as Troy’s sons also provide strong, believable work.
Wilson’s play is one that touches on many subjects that, ultimately, are better left unsaid in order to have a richer experience whilst watching. However, his work also focuses very specifically on the idea of emotional barriers; the eponymous fence is symbolic of the barriers that its characters build up against others and the world and how sometimes, those barriers come tumbling down.
Fences (2016) Directed by Denzel Washington, is distributed by Paramount Pictures. Certificate 12A.