FENCES (Movie Review)

*** out of ****
Rated PG-13
(for thematic elements, language, and some suggestive references)
Released:  December 16, 2016 NY & LA; December 25 wide
Runtime: 138 minutes
Director: Denzel Washington
Starring: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Jovan Adepo, Stephen McKinely Henderson, Russell Hornsby, Mykelti Williamson

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Couldn’t make it to New York City in 2010 to see the heralded run of August Wilson’s Fences? No problem, now it’s coming to you. Consider this the long overdue national tour, with all but one of that production’s ensemble in tow.

If La La Land is a true fusion of cinema and theatre, then Fences is merely a play on film. You can almost hear the stage boards creaking under their feet. That’s not the worst thing in the world, especially when the cast and source material are this good. But it does make you wish that Denzel Washington, who directs as well as stars, would’ve hired his good friend Spike Lee to helm (or at least asked himself What Would Spike Do?) so as to give it a more inspired vitality, an urgency, maybe even a provocative flair.

Running for 88 performances on Broadway in a revival that gave the two-time Oscar-winner his first Tony Award, Washington’s primary ambition seems simply to document for posterity his stage director Kenny Leon’s take on Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning text. It ranks among the great American plays, with arguably the two best stage roles ever written for black actors, about a 1950s Pittsburgh African-American family that finds itself at a crossroads.

Troy Maxson (Washington) is a middle-aged garbage man who never made it as a big league ball player, simply because he had the historical misfortune of pre-dating Jackie Robinson. He’s met his responsibilities to his wife (Viola Davis, also reprising a Tony-winning performance) and teenage son for eighteen years, but he must finally confront whether he’s truly done right by them (a virtue he self-righteously makes a point of demanding in one of several belittling diatribes to his only child). In truth, he’s abused his position of authority to transfer and unload a festering bitterness towards life.

For the first ninety minutes of this two hours-plus drama, there’s little more to Washington’s directorial style than to set up cameras at reasonable angles and just let them roll. He actually shot on location in a low income Pittsburgh neighborhood, but it gains him no authentic immediacy. By appearances, it could just as easily been shot in some corner strip of any studio backlot.

The net effect is merely having the best seat at the Cort Theatre, where the revival ran. Washington makes little effort to expand beyond the essential stage design of this single Pittsburgh home (other than a fourth wall), the street that runs in front of it, or the small, barren back yard where several confrontations go down.

The uninspired, purely straightforward capture of the material isn’t the only aspect that makes it feel more like a play than a movie; the delivery and pacing of the performances flow in rhythms of the stage, not the screen, with a quick, constant pace meant to draw the audience’s attention (as actors must do in theatre) as opposed to using film language via framing, editing, etc. to achieve the same goal (as directors must do in movies).

And yet, after a crucial turning point, Washington surprisingly (and subtly) shifts gears in tone and style for the final forty-five minute stretch. It actually looks, feels, and paces like a movie. No longer are characters’ burdens and hopes communicated strictly through words – lots and lots and lots of words, via monologues and speeches – but now also through image, pure emotion, and even some visual poetry.

Fences becomes an actual movie of human drama between a husband and a wife, a father and a son, and the friends and family that have endured this man’s destructive ways. It’s a sobering account of the perverse entitlement that bitterness creates, and its wake, but also a poignant portrait of grace extended toward the innocent and unworthy alike.

With Fences, you’re in for some great theatre – anchored by two absolutely towering performances (Davis especially) – but only workmanlike cinema. As a director, Washington may not elevate the material but, as Troy Maxson demands, he does do right by it.

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