(ED. NOTE: This review was originally published in November. Since the movie is just now opening across the country at Christmas, we’re republishing it today.)
I’ve been trying to think of the most hyperbolic adjectives possible to describe how great the acting performances are in Denzel Washington’s Fences. “Tour de force” is a good one, right? I’ve never gotten to use that before. Other people seem to say it all the time. So here goes: Denzel Washington and Viola Davis are a tour de force. That felt good! And it’s true, they are. And they are both all but certain to not just be nominated for Academy Awards, but are the odds on favorite to win their respective categories, too.
If you want to see some great acting, Fences is a movie that has great acting.
In a post-film Q&A that took place the night I saw Fences, Washington spoke about how, as director, he wanted to open up the world of August Wilson’s play for the big screen. And it’s true, unlike the play – which takes place entirely in the backyard of the Maxsons’ Pittsburgh home – the film takes us inside the home and gives us glimpses into what Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington) is doing when he’s not drinking in the backyard with his friend Jim Bono (Stephen Henderson).
But, even so, while watching it still feels like a play. And this isn’t so much a criticism, because it would be crazy to drastically change what August Wilson had done with his masterpiece. And so, no, the entire film doesn’t happen in the backyard, but probably about 60 percent of the movie still does. Fences is a showcase for actors. And showcase their acting Fences certainly does.
If you’re not familiar with the play, Washington plays Troy, a waste collector who is fighting for his right to be promoted to a driver in 1950s Pittsburgh. He’s a former Negro League slugger who was too old to play Major League Baseball after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947. This is something Troy can’t let go, often making claims he could still outplay many of the current starters on the Yankees. And it often causes conflict with his youngest son, Cory (Jovan Adepo), who is a local high school football star, because Troy doesn’t want any son of his playing sports – even if it means losing a scholarship. Also, he loves his backyard.
Troy’s relationship with his wife, Rose (Viola Davis) is both loving and complicated. Troy has another son, Lyons (Russell Hornsby), from another woman, but doesn’t have much of a relationship with him. (Lyons will stop by when he needs money, which he usually gets from Rose, not Troy.) It’s at this point I need to stop myself because if you don’t know the play, there’s a moment about halfway through that changes everything between Troy and Rose. But, for a movie, I suppose this event would be considered a spoiler, so I won’t write about it. But I will say that it’s here that Viola Davis hits another level. It’s at this moment we really learn who Rose is and Davis drives home her emotions in a way that’s just absolutely brilliant.
Like I said, it would be crazy to change August Wilson’s work too much, but the problem is it’s impossible to make Fences cinematic. This probably reads a lot more critical than I intend it to be. My point is this is the best possible film adaptation of Fences that could realistically be done. If it changed any more – if the world was opened up even more – it’s not Fences anymore.
I hope people see Fences. It’s set in the 1950s, but it’s still so pertinent to today. And, again, I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about how fantastic both Washington and Davis are in this film. They previously played these roles on stage together during a recent revival of the play (which earned them both Tonys), so they’ve had plenty of practice to get to the heard of Troy and Rose together. In that post film Q&A, Washington said he thinks the acting is better in the film than they were on stage – because they don’t have to play to the back row, the camera is right there on their faces. I didn’t see Washington and Davis on stage, but I’ll just go ahead and take Washington for his word on this one, because I can’t imagine how they could be any better than was we see in this film.