If you’ve studied theater on even the most surface level, you know August Wilson. He’s one of the most important African-American playwrights to ever grace the stage, and Fences, his 1983 Pulitzer-winning play about a black family living in Pittsburgh during the 1950s, may be his crowning achievement. He never found a place in film, however, though it appears he helped complete a screenplay adaptation of Fences before he passed away in 2005. That screenplay is the basis for the film adaptation of Fences; aside from a few new locations, it’s hard to find much difference between Wilson’s original script and what’s onscreen. It’s said that playwright and screenwriter Tony Kushner provided additional contributions, but it’s hard to imagine what he could have added. Fences is the play, with closeups.
The good news is that the play is as powerful now as it ever was. Through its slim cast of characters, Fences tackles familial and cultural issues that are distinct and relevant to an oppressed culture just beginning to find its place in America. It takes place in the ‘50s; the Civil Rights movement has yet to arrive, but the seeds that led to it are already being planted. This is a time of transition, and while the youth are hopeful, the older generation is consumed with a (justified) sense of distrust and disillusionment. For Wilson, these characters, vividly drawn as they are, represented larger trends and cultural attitudes across multiple generations.
Denzel Washington directs and stars as patriarch Troy Maxson, reprising his role from the play’s Tony-winning Broadway revival in 2010. Viola Davis, also of the 2010 revival, co-stars as Rose, his no-nonsense wife. A former Negro League baseball player, Troy now works as a garbage man in Pittsburgh. There, he cares for a teenage son, Cory (Jovan Adepo), entertains a grown one, Lyons (Russell Hornsby), and struggles with his brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), a delusional and mentally disturbed veteran. Generally considered one of the great characters in theater, Troy is a vibrant, verbose man who’s also prone to violent strains of bitterness and rage. It should come as no surprise that the role fits Washington like a glove.
Through monologue after monologue after monologue, Washington leaps nimbly between warm recollections, sneering barks, and punishing rebukes, pausing only briefly to let those around him wax rhapsodic for a moment or two. Often, it’s the kind of expositional dialogue that’s usually relegated to theater; were the language not so beautiful, you might feel as though you were hearing the uncut autobiography of one man’s life. Listening to one’s memories is rarely the stuff of good drama, but the combination of fierce, fiery acting and living language is exactly the stuff that makes non-musical theater relevant in the modern age. Fences is, since it debuted in the early ‘80s, a symbol of how live theater can still inspire.
And perhaps that’s why Wilson never made much of an effort to put his plays on film. You can’t rely on what makes a play work onstage to make it succeed onscreen — just look at August: Osage County. Washington the director doesn’t do much to translate the material outside of changing a few locations, locking in on a character’s face, and adding a few wordless interstitials, none of which deepen or transform what already existed in Wilson’s play. In an odd way, even the intimacy of Washington’s camerawork serves to over-emphasize some of the heavier-handed moments of Wilson’s script. In this instance, the medium just doesn’t elevate the material.
That said, Fences is still a gripping watch, but it’s gripping for the reasons the play has always been gripping: the language and performances. Adepo, Hornsby, and Stephen McKinley Henderson (as Troy’s friend Bono) have an iron-clad grip on the emotional complexities of their characters. Davis’ Rose is gorgeously rendered; she exudes a maternal warmth, but also a hard-fought, conflicted sense of duty and responsibility made of jagged edges. Williamson is earnest but ultimately too precious as Gabriel, one of the most difficult characters to play in the canon. And Washington is undoubtedly fascinating as Troy, but his cadence and vocal tics become more and more pronounced across two-plus hours of his exhortations. It becomes tiring, after a while.
It’s wonderful that a broader audience now has access to Fences, but this adaptation still feels like something of a missed opportunity. Film is a medium unto itself. Adaptation is necessary. But Fences may as well just be a filmed Broadway production.