Directed by: Denzel Washington.
Written by: August Wilson based on his play.
Starring: Denzel Washington (Troy Maxson), Viola Davis (Rose Maxson), Stephen McKinley Henderson (Jim Bono), Jovan Adepo (Cory), Russell Hornsby (Lyons), Mykelti Williamson (Gabriel), Saniyya Sidney (Raynell).
The accepted wisdom of adapting a play to the screen is that a director has to “open up” the action of the play – don’t confine everyone to a single location, as many plays do, allow them more freedom of movement. You also need to trim the dialogue done a little – many plays are constant talk – quiet moments are rarer on stage than screen, and the constant talking gives away the stage roots of the film, and somehow makes things less cinematic. I don’t know where these rules came from, but I’ve never much been a fan of them. Sure, opening up a play can work wonders on screen, as can whittling down the dialogue. But often, all it serves to do is to take away what made the play special in the first place – what made it worth doing. When I think of some of my favorite stage to screen adaptations – Elia Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire, Mike Nichols’ Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, James Foley’s Glengarry Glen Ross, numerous Sidney Lumet films (12 Angry Men, Long Day’s Journey Into Night), and more recently a pair of William Friedkin films – Bug and Killer Joe – they didn’t really worry about opening the action up. They didn’t add needless characters, or move them around a lot – and they weren’t afraid of letting their actors go on long monologues or conversations – in short, they weren’t afraid of people calling their work “stagey”, because these directors knew how to keep the play intact and how to make it all cinematic. Denzel Washington’s Fences is a stage to screen adaptation in this tradition – it doesn’t hide its stage roots in the least, but the critics who argue that he has simply made a photographed play are wrong – as a director, Washington finds a way to make a great movie out of a great play.
Fences, adapted from August Wilson’s play (the screenplay by Wilson himself, before he died a decade ago), centers on Troy Maxson (Washington), a Pittsburgh garbage man, who every Friday likes to hold court in his backyard, telling his best friend – the ever friendly Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson) stories that Bono already knows, but smiles and laughs about anyway. Maxson is a storyteller – a gregarious one, prone to exaggeration to be sure. His wife Rose (Viola Davis), clearly loves him, and will come out back and tease Troy, as he teases her back. He talks a lot about baseball – Troy was a great player in the Negro league days, but never made the majors – and he’s still bitter about that. Troy has two sons – the younger one, by Rose, named Cory (Jovan Adepo) wants to play football – but Troy isn’t having it – sports gave him nothing, and he wants his son to learn a trade as well. The older one, Lyons – by a woman who isn’t Rose, shows up on payday to borrow a few dollars – he’s a musician, but not a very successful one – but he has to endure some lectures from his old man before getting his money. In the opening act of the movie, Troy seems like a decent enough man – stern to be sure, a strict taskmaster, and stubborn as hell – but a man who generally wants what is best for his family. Washington plays him with humor and charm – he has a mountain of dialogue, and Washington rips into it with his trademark gusto – he did the play on Broadway a few years ago, and honed his performance until it was perfect.
As the movie progresses however, another side of Troy comes out – or more accurately, that big gregarious persona is seen in a different light. Troy can be cruel, mean and selfish – bitter and angry that his lot in life hasn’t worked out – that he was denied his American dream, and perhaps willing to take it away from everyone else as well. We see a definite change in those around him as well. As brilliant as Washington is in the film, Davis is perhaps even better as Rose. Because Washington is so good at covering Troy’s cruelty and angry at first, we understand why she loves him – and why she stands by him, no matter what he does. But when he breaks her, her sorrow is heartbreaking (no one cries like Viola Davis), and then her anger turns ice cold (there is a moment when Troy asks her to do the unthinkable, and she relents, but her response to him is chilling). I also loved the performance by Henderson as Bono – the guy who is happy enough to be around Troy when he’s happy, observant enough to see how Troy is about to ruin his life and warn him, and smart enough to get the hell away from him before he explodes. The other performances are great as well – Hornsby as Lyons (who, like Washington, Davis and Henderson, did this role on Broadway in the revival a few years ago), the seemingly happy-go-lucky son, who is perhaps more broken than he seems. And Adepo as Cory, the younger son, who rebels against his father – but will eventually have to deal with the fact he is more similar to him than he wants to admit. I was less enamored with Mykelti Williamson as Gabriel – Troy’s brother, injured in the war, and now with a metal plate in his head – not so much because of Williamson’s performance, but because the character himself, seems to be a little too on the nose, symbolically.
That is the ultimate message of Fences – a father/son movie about legacy, and the various ways parents can screw up – and screw up their children. How you can hate everything about them, but you’re stuck with them. Troy can be cruel and scary, violent and unpredictable. The various secrets he reveals throughout the film explain part of that – his own legacy being passed down from prior generations.
There is no denying that Fences doesn’t try to hide its stage roots. Washington clearly loves Wilson’s dialogue, and as a director, he’s going to keep as much of it as humanly possible. I think it’s probable that no other movie this year has more words spoken than Fences does – it’s nearly constant. But while Washington doesn’t get flashy with his direction, he does find fascinating ways to film the movie – sometimes making everything seem claustrophobic by getting in close-ups, and sometimes dwarfing his characters by pulling back. Yes, it feels like a movie version of a play – but I’ve never quite understood why that’s bad. It’s not like Washington set up a stationary camera to capture the work on a stage – he knows what he’s doing with the camera, to emphasize the performances and dialogue, not to detract from it. It’s his best feature as a director so far – and one of the best stage to screen adaptations in recent memory.