Denzel Washington won a Tony in 2010 for his portrayal of Troy Maxson, the obtusely prideful patriarch at the center of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning stage play, Fences. Washington’s familiarity with and admiration for the material shines through in his blustery, bombastic performance, as the rightfully lauded thespian is throwing everything he’s got into Maxson, providing backbone to a man who speaks in baseball metaphors while hanging a veil of violence over his household at all times. As a respectful adaptation of Wilson’s work, Denzel’s third feature directorial effort is aces; an act of reverence so comprehensive, Wilson retains the sole screenwriting credit despite having been dead for over a decade. However, as a film, this 2016 rendition of Fences is found lacking, as Washington’s camera becomes nothing more than a recording device, delivering a theatrical transmission into mall theaters across the globe. It’s cinema that forgets to be truly cinematic; the moviemaking equivalent of a courtroom sketch artist trapped in a Broadway theater, a lens standing in for their usual crude watercolors.
The stagey nature of Washington’s production is felt most in the acting. These are LOUD performances, projecting to the back row of a theater that already enjoys the benefit of Surround Sound. At one point, Troy Waxson is described by his son, Cory (The Leftovers’ Jovan Adepo), as “a shadow that follows you everywhere”, and the same can be said about Washington’s somewhat poorly modulated return to the role. Troy is a whirlwind of a human being, barking stories about his days playing baseball in the Negro Leagues while simultaneously being distrustful of a White Man’s World that’s handicapped his ability to excel within it. He refers to his loving wife Rose (Viola Davis) as “woman”. He barely gives his best friend Bono (Stephen Henderson) a drink out of the bottles they share every Friday. He looks down upon his disabled brother Gabe (Mykelti Williamson) with a mixture of shame and annoyance. His house is “his house”, and he rules this measly kingdom with an iron fist. To be completely fair, arty gigantism is warranted when playing Maxson, for he is a colossal God in spirit, even if life has beaten him down and passed him by. Yet it’s also difficult not to be distracted by Denzel’s blatantly theatrical presentation, because every moment he’s on screen should be accompanied by a neon sign that screams “Applaud Now!” once the obvious scene endpoints arrive.
Thank goodness for Viola Davis. Where Washington has taken a maximalist approach to his screen presence, Davis grounds every scene with contrarian interjections and a weary sense of having heard every single one of Troy’s stories a million times over. Objectively, this again is at least partially the point of Rose Maxson’s presence – she’s been with this excessive fellow for eighteen years now, and has learned to take the bad with the good, even if the good seems to be in short supply as of late. It’s through Rose’s reactions that we’re able to wade through Troy’s oppressive persona and get to the core of his storytelling; namely which narratives are true and which are utter bullshit. Their interactions allow the real Troy to trickle out over time – a thief and ex-con who may have overstayed his welcome in the game he loves, and who now criticizes everything around him because of his own fear of inadequacy. Davis is a gift in Fences, as without her, Washington would threaten to (and still often does) overwhelm the picture with his histrionic grandstanding.
Beyond tethering the movie to this planet and preventing it from becoming a Brechtian exercise in watching a man wrestle with Death Himself, Davis injects quiet interior life into Rose, allowing her to gather strength, so that when Fences does shift a solid amount of its focus to her following a second act betrayal, we’re able to feel every step of her transformative journey toward emerging out from beneath Troy’s monstrous thumb. Even in her Oscar Reel Moment, where Rose confronts Troy over his marital indiscretions, Davis never shoots off into outer space like her male counterpart, a broken heart and shattered spirit binding her to the unkempt Pittsburgh backyard she’s looked out over for most of her existence. We’ve always known Davis to be a remarkable actress, but here she’s so good that she damn near saves the movie all on her own.
Unfortunately, after the first ten minutes or so, Washington can’t quite capture the play in any manner that’s visually engaging. The intro is beautifully composed, as Troy and Bono hang off the back of their rubbish wagon, bitching about how no colored men are ever allowed to become truck drivers in Western Pennsylvania. Troy’s filed a complaint with the Commissioner, and is fretting about whether or not he’s going to lose his job because of the grievance. Outside of representing Pittsburgh with a honey-toned touch of nostalgia that’s usually lost when the city is on screen (it did double for Chris Nolan’s industrial wasteland Gotham in The Dark Knight Rises, after all), Denzel is letting us soak in the vastness of the world these blue collar black men call home. Nevertheless, once we’re in Troy’s backyard, drinking gin with the guys as Papa Maxson holds court, the drab working class ambiance is suffocating. This weed-littered patio becomes the main stage on which most of the drama plays out – a multipurpose site where Rose hangs her laundry and Troy swings his bat at an ancient tethered training ball. The single setting is both a reflection of August Wilson’s original artistic intent, and the work’s primary venue. But it also feels like Washington was simply content to film another interpretation of the play instead of implementing the tools of cinema and allow Fences to come alive in a way it previously hadn’t. An artifice of filmmaking is rarely evident, the screen acting as a literal fourth wall instead of a canvas on which the artist should be painting.
It’s relatively easy to deduce why Denzel decided to bring Wilson’s play to the stage at this point in our history. Fences was originally conceived in 1983 as a means of showcasing domestic black life to an audience that didn’t necessarily consider or value it. As a whole, the play has never been more relevant, imploring white viewers to truly feel the scope and magnitude of everyday black struggle, bearing witness to the magnitude of lives that hadn’t yet been properly represented in mainstream art. It’s the original “Black Lives Matter”, emphasizing empathy and grace in the face of relentless cruelty. In the wake of Donald Trump’s election (which the start of this production obviously predated), works are constantly being re-contextualized to re-evaluated with his potentially despotic rule in mind. Despite background and race, Troy is an authoritarian bully; a petty persecutor, wielding emotions and money at those he claims to love like weapons of mass destruction. While the position of prominence is markedly different, the toxic masculinity that fuels Troy’s every action is oddly relatable to our current incoming President’s disposition of narcissistic ignorance. Both men are “of another time”, holding onto masculine ideals so antiquated they blind them to ever seeing the destructive consequences of their actions.
A movie like Fences comes preloaded like a powder keg of pretension, as one of our greatest black actors has committed himself to bringing a fearlessly truthful work of representative art to a new medium. If viewed strictly as an act of audience expansion for August Wilson’s brilliance, then the movie is mostly a triumph. Yet despite cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen (The Hunt, Far From the Madding Crowd) ostensibly working double time in order to inject each immaculately blocked scene with a golden sense of cinema, the movie never seems to become much more than an Academy Award-minded Fathom Event. But it’s also hard to completely knock Washington’s movie, as the muscular panache of Wilson’s plainspoken dialogue is more than enough to justify its existence. It’s just a shame Washington couldn’t discover a visual poetry to match the late great scribe’s majestic tour through Troy Maxson’s own personal scorched Earth. In the end, Fences is Mega Theater turned minor cinema.