Fences is a phenomenal play

Are the qualities that separate good theater so different from those of good film? In other words, am I drawing some super arbitrary line by saying that Fences is an extraordinarily good piece of theater, but finds itself struggling to find that same sense of the extraordinary as a film?

Make no mistake, Fences as a film still retains how extraordinarily good a piece of writing and dramatic craft the original is, retains a phenomenal cast of all-time performers, and retains the feeling that is an urgent and important story to take in. But it doesn’t add on a new sense of cinematic importance, you get the feeling Denzel Washington sought entirely to preserve an artifact rather than engage with a new form or medium.

The story is exactly the same as its original form (to the point where August Wilson receives sole screenwriting credit). It’s a tale of the Maxson family centered around its patriarch Troy (Denzel Washington). Troy is a blue-collar man, angry at a world set against him and chances that he never got to have. He’s a towering force, exerting every bit of his wisdom and bitterness on his family, including his wife Rose (Viola Davis) and his two sons, Cory (Jovan Adepo) and Lyons (Russell Hornsby). The story plays out in the backyard of his small house in Pittsburgh, as a series of decisions Troy makes comes back to haunt him.

Fences is oriented around its actorly performances, a series of a massive tour-de-force performances, of which the two at the front have already won Tonys. That would be Denzel as Troy and Viola as Rose.

Make no mistake, these are both exceptional performances. Denzel is hyperverbal, spitting out every word with nuclear force and controlling the orbit of every other performance around him. Viola is utter control, her bursts hitting all the harder when she makes a cry out, the wear of years and years exuded so perfectly. This is a masterclass, two actors doing everything they can.

If anything can be said about Denzel and Viola, the biggest difference between them is how much one seems to be modulated for the film and how one doesn’t. Viola is letting the camera do its work, letting it get up close and letting her wear the smaller expressions and modulations. She feels like she’s making a performance for the film.

Denzel feels like he’s still doing the stage performance. His Troy is still pitched to the back of the auditorium, it’s a giant and maximalist performance. Maybe it’s the demands of directing and starring, but it feels like no modifications were made, still modulated for a different medium. It’s great, and I absolutely don’t use it as a slight, but this is still very much a theater performance.

And of course, there’s plenty of great supporting performances underpinning those two at the center. Jovan Adepo’s Cory is an incredibly complex and compelling show, a man who’s trying to discover how to come out from under his father’s shadow, how to find his own soul. I also love Stephen Henderson as Troy’s friend Bono, giving the movie a little less of a theatricality and a little extra friendly soul, a lighted buoy in a sea of so much difficulty.

But it’s no surprise that there is so much strong acting in this film. This is an actor’s film made by an actor, it seems like so much of the film is made to get out of the way of the more theatrical elements. Simple staging, simple camera work, set to record rather than capture. Hell, there’s barely any music, though that seems to instead be to let August Wilson’s words and their reading play as the music. It feels like a special theater event, think the National Theater Fathom events that they always have commercials for before any given movie.

It’s a devotion to the source which is absolutely to be admired. Fences is a work of empathy for the Black community, understanding what the working class life is for Black Americans, helping an understanding what the Black community is for those who had no idea what it was like and for those who needed to see themselves reflected in art.

But I think Denzel had a chance as director to find something new in this work, to find something that the camera, that the film form could discover. Some update or alteration, but nothing is made. Denzel is recording this beautiful work exactly as it is, for better or worse. That leaves a few things standing out, I think specifically of Gabriel (Mylekti Williamson), as of the theater artifice and not of the film artifice. There are certain things that fit as theater convention but stand out as film convention, and the showy and ambiguous avatar that is Troy’s mentally-damaged brother stands out as one of them.

I can’t say enough good things about Fences as a piece of theater and as a story, but I have to express my reservations about it as a film. It’s still a staggering work, but I so so wish that Denzel had taken a chance with this, tried to make something new out of it. Fences is a story that deserves to be just as iconoclastic on the silver screen as it was on the stage.