I haven’t seen Fences performed live nor have I read August Wilson’s script for the play so I can’t compare Denzel Washington’s cinematic production to either of those. I can, however, talk about it purely as a work in the film medium. As far as that goes, it was… good. Certainly not great. Aspects of it were great, sure, and I’ll get to those in a minute. But what the film needed was a dose of editing. The problem is that when you’re deciding to make a film out of a Pulitzer prize winning play, let alone one by August Wilson, nobody in their right mind will want to alter it. I think it makes sense to hold a work in such high regard and not want to change it. But even Shakespeare’s plays are cut up to fit the needs of cinema, so I think some work could have been done to trim down the 139-minute runtime. I mean, if theatre-goers are going to get an intermission when they see the play, don’t you think we need one at the movie too? The seats are just as uncomfortable.
The other trap I think Denzel fell into with this movie is what a lot of films based on plays fall into: too much dialogue. Plays and films are different on a pretty fundamental level. In films, by and large, actions advance plot. In plays, dialogue does that. So when you take the one and put it in the other, something will probably need to change. Fences on the screen is still mostly dialogue. That can work in films but usually something else interesting is happening cinematically. Such as the cinematography in Steve Jobs or Alec Baldwin’s balls scene in Glengarry Glen Ross (which, by the by, was added for the film version and not in the play’s script).
But, I would like to also point out what works really well in the film because it is quite worth seeing for these things. Point one, the acting. It’s based on a play so you better believe the acting better be top-notch to keep the audience engaged. Everyone impresses in the film. Denzel is on-screen the most and it’s always great to see one of the greats just doing what they do best. I was reminded of Dennis Hoffman in the TV movie version of Death of a Salesman.
There’s also Jovan Adepo as his second son, Russell Hornsby as his first, Stephen McKinley Henderson as best friend Bono (not the lead singer of U2), and even little Saniyya Sidney (who will also be in Hidden Figures, out this Friday I think) and they all turn in great performances. Really, though, this is the Viola Davis show. She’s the only female role until pretty late in the film, so she really has to assert herself among all the testosterone flowing, much of which comes from Denzel’s Troy. The trailer picks out some of her most intense moments, but those aren’t even the ones that impressed me the most.
I really loved the way she called out Troy when he was lying, the way she didn’t take his wrongdoings lying down, and I especially love the moment when she tells Troy “you’re a man without a woman” or something of the same. That was the only time that I didn’t mind how unbelievably talkative the theater crowd was during the screening I was at. Seriously, it was like a commentary track with nothing interesting to say. Which is to say it was like a commentary track. I know Viola Davis will get a lot of awards attention for this one, and it is definitely well-deserved.
All in all I’m glad I saw the film. I won’t be rushing to buy it when it comes out or anything, but it was nice to watch an acting showcase which, realistically, is what Fences is.