Denzel Washington’s adaptation of Fences turned a good play into a mediocre movie. Ironically, the problem is that he did not change the play enough. He simply “filmed a play”. Fences does not come across well on the big screen. A small set and extended soliloquies work well on a stage, where an audience feels it is sharing an intimate moment with the actors. However, on a huge screen, extreme close-ups, long speeches and no movement makes the audience feel bored and claustrophobic. Movies work best when the audience is shown a story instead of just having actors tell a story.
Fences is set in Pittsburgh in 1956 and is the story of Troy (Denzel Washington), a middle-age garbage man who is bitter with the way his his life has turned out. Supposedly he was a great baseball player in the Negro League, but was too old to make the transition to the Major Leagues when they became desegregated. As the film progresses we learn that this is not exactly the whole truth.
Almost all of the movie takes place in the backyard. Troy is supposedly building a fence, but spends most of his time lecturing his family and friends about how hard he works and how they are not living their lives properly. The main target of Troy’s wrath is is his son Cory (Jovan Adepo) Cory has the chance to get a football scholarship to college, but Troy is against that.
Troy is not capable of accepting that things have changed for African-Americans. Troy wants Cory to forget about college and instead learn a trade. Throughout Fences, it is never really clear if Troy is just trying to give advice, or if he is jealous that Cory is being given opportunities that Troy never had. The basic plot is good and the acting is superb. We learn about Troy’s history in bits and pieces, and the more we learn the more complex a character he becomes.
However, you never get over the feeling that you are just watching a videotape of a play. There are far too many long speeches, and it feels like the entire movie is about 15 minutes too long. Fences should have had scenes showing us what was happening to Troy instead of having Troy talk about them after the fact.
For example, we hear that Troy complained to the union that all the men lifting up the trashcans were black and all the drivers of the garbage trucks were white. Troy was then ordered to come before the bosses of the company. Troy thought he was going to get fired, but instead he was promoted to be a truck driver. That would have been a powerful scene to see. However, we don’t see it. We just get Troy standing in the backyard telling us about it.
The movie also drops some plot lines for no reason. When Troy gets promoted to driver, Troy’s friend Jim (Stephen Henderson) asks Troy how he will be able to drive when Troy does not have driver’s license and does not know how to read. But Troy becomes a driver with no problem and the issue is never brought up again. So why was it even mentioned in the first place?
Viola Davis plays Troy’s long suffering wife Rose, who faces each day with intense dignity. Mykelti Williamson is Troy’s brain-damaged brother Gabriel and gives an award-worthy performance.
Overall Fences in an interesting film, but could could have been so much better. The writer of the play, August Wilson also did the movie script, but did not live to see the completed film. Perhaps Denzel Washington felt it would be disrespectful to make too many changes. But film is a different medium than the stage, and requires a different technique for the audience to get the most out of the work.
- We rate Fences Three Stars ***
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