It has taken awhile, but Fences is finally on the big screen, and for that we can be thankful this holiday season. It’s fairly shocking that no play from the great August Wilson has ever been transferred until now — and there have been rumblings about a movie version since its 1987 Broadway debut that starred James Earl Jones and won both the Tony and Pulitzer Prize. The impetus for it finally happening came with the Tony-winning 2010 Broadway revival that starred Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, who both also won lead acting Tonys. Washington felt he had to play it on stage before ever tackling the film, but that he has finally done in directing and starring along with most of the cast of his stage revival.
As I state in my video review above, I would say Fences is Wilson’s masterpiece, a powerful story set in 1950s Pittsburgh with themes ranging from race relations to family and the walls we build around ourselves. It is centered on Troy (Washington), a sanitation worker in his mid-50s who alienates his still-devoted wife Rose (Davis) and family including son Cory (Jovan Adepo). He also lives in his reveries from the past, constantly talking about his “glory days” when he was a contender, a young man with talent playing in the Negro Baseball League. Rose is his long-suffering wife who still can look at him and recall the man she fell in love with, but also realizes there is really only a shell left of their relationship despite her efforts to help him stand out of his own way.
The cast includes Stephen Henderson, Russell Hornsby and Mykelti Williamson — all from the 2010 revival — who bring that solid experience playing these roles to the screen in powerful new ways, particularly Williamson who is quite effective playing Troy’s brother, a man suffering from some mental impairment. Veteran actor Henderson is very fine too, as is Adepo playing the young son who is trying to avoid his father’s fate; he and Washington share some strong scenes toward the end of the movie. There is also the delightful young Saniyya Sidney, who lights up the screen toward the end of the film.
But undoubtedly, the performance of the film, and perhaps the year, belongs to Davis with an explosive, heartbreaking force that tears the screen apart and brings you to tears. Every award will be hers — and should be.
Fences does not come across as a filmed play as much as a permanent cinematic document of a great work to which attention must be paid. Washington has opened it up a bit, but most of the action still revolves around the house, and its environs. It does not feel claustrophobic in the least, and I have to say it is a pleasure to hear dialogue — there is a lot of it — on this level from a screenplay written by Wilson himself several year ago; he died in 2005. Some may be put off at first due to the density of the conversations, but it harkens to a time when major studios regularly brought the work of great playwrights to movie theaters and audiences had attention spans longer than a gnat. It also provides Washington with the role of a very distinguished career and he knows exactly how to deliver it, without using flashy directing techniques to get in the way.
Producers are Washington, Scott Rudin and Todd Black. Paramount releases Fences in select theaters Friday, going wide Christmas Day. A must see.
Do you plan to see Fences? Let us know what you think.