Stellar Acting Can’t Save ‘Fences’ From the Need for Adaptation

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Adaptation is necessary for bringing anything to the screen. It’s impossible to just transpose a novel, a comic book, or a play to the screen without some form adaptation to suit the change between mediums. It may seem that because a play is a hit and winner of Pulitzer Prize that its subject matter alone would be enough to suffice for a feature length movie, but that’s simply not the case as Denzel Washington’s adaptation of August Wilson’s play Fences proves. Throughout the film it’s apparent that Fences originated as a stage production and it is equally obvious that this is a project helmed by an actor. This is a movie featuring capital A acting with lengthy, wordy impassioned monologues and impressive performances but never once does Fences feel the least bit cinematic. It merely proves that works so well on the stage doesn’t necessarily work so well on the screen.

In 1950s Pittsburgh, Troy (Washington) works as a garbage collector. Every Friday, Troy shares a bottle of gin with his co-worker Bono (Stephen Henderson) in the backyard of the home he owns with his wife Rose (Viola Davis). Troy has a knack for embellishment and using baseball as a metaphor when discussing the thoughts that come to his mind, as Troy has hard time letting go of his past as a player in the Negro Leagues. On those Fridays, Troy’s eldest son Lyons (Russell Hornsby) stops by hoping to borrow money while his youngest son Cory (Jovan Adepo) is either working or practicing with the football team. The past grievances about not being able to play in the Major Leagues haunt Troy and he doesn’t want his son playing football or any sport, going as far as to refuse to allow his son to meet with a recruiter from a college. Sometimes Troy’s older brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson) stops by, his mental state damaged from a head injury he sustained in the war.

Fences doesn’t really have a plot as much as it’s a collection of scenes that mostly take place on the back porch of Troy and Rose’s home. These scenes consist of lengthy monologues about marriage, masculinity, race, and baseball as part of a larger portrait of this American family. Troy and Rose have a loving relationship, but that will soon be fractured by infidelity and thus start an unraveling of every relationship that Troy holds dear. It’s truly unfortunate from a cinematic perspective that Denzel Washington retains the constraints of the limited locations, making a movie that is just as sparse with settings as a play. Fences takes its time getting to the dramatic tension and its pacing really makes it kind of exhausting to sit through as much of the first half seems to blend together with one location and one rhythm to its lengthy conversations.

There’s simply no denying, though, that the acting in Fences is top notch all around, which is obviously a credit to having an actor-director in Denzel Washington. A powerful leading man, Washington is able to exude his wide-smile charms as well as tap into a darker, unsettling nature to his character and a facet of his acting ability that he hasn’t shown in some time. No matter how good Washington is, and he’s really good, he’s overshadowed by the immense talents of Viola Davis, who gives one of the finest performances in her career. All of the empathy that is in Fences is embodied by Davis, who also hits on the film’s tragedy and optimism in equal parts.

For all the excellent acting in Fences it is still a movie that doesn’t have a flow. Running at nearly two hours and 20 minutes, Fences lacks in pacing as it is solely comprised of lengthy scenes that are intended for the stage. Denzel Washington is an adequate director and a stellar actor, but his reverence for the source material underserves him here as the film is simply in need of adaptation. Even if you’re like me and are underwhelmed by Fences there’s no way you can overlook the fact that Viola Davis steals this movie and is movie’s true saving grace. If only the whole of the movie could retain just a fraction of the power that Davis brings to the screen.

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