It’s hard to adapt plays into film, let’s admit that right away. Film has spent almost its entire history trying escape the confines of theater and find its own voice as an art form. Amongst film geeks, one of the most insulting things you can say about a film is that it feels like “filmed theater.” There have been adaptations of plays before that are suitably “cinematic,” such as “12 Angry Men” or “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” but many can never get out from under the proscenium arch, failing to take advantage of their medium and wasting many new dramatic and artistic possibilities that come with moving in front of a cameras lens. So what do you do when you wish to take the work of one of American’s greatest playwrights, August Wilson, and immortalize it on celluloid?
If you’re smart like Denzel Washington, you embrace the film’s “play-ness,” its literal theatricality, as he has done with “Fences,” which he produced, directed, and stars in. This approach has its drawbacks. Most of the time the stagy quality of the film is a non-issue. It’s such an engaging story that you almost don’t feel like watching the cuts and how the camera is moving, and it mostly doesn’t matter.
But sometimes things do feel a little stiff, most evident in the final scene, where Washington’s disinterest in the behind-the-camera artistry of movies becomes apparent. Though, to be fair, this sluggish final act might have more to do with Wilson’s play on a structural level. The scene is important for what the script is trying say, but is serves more of a thematic purpose than a dramatic one.
But there are other times where “Fences” achieves something that no film I can recall has ever before achieved: the immediacy, rawness, and energy of live theater. It’s not a perfect distillation of all that is wonderful about the stage, but it gets damn close. There are moments where you’re so lost in the drama, that close-ups make it feel like the actors are right there in front of your face.
But of course, because of its “play-as-movie” style, the real star of this movie isn’t the direction, but the actors and the script. Wilson’s words are music, poetry of the everyday, and it’s evident how delighted the cast is to be sinking their teeth into it all. This is dialogue any actor would kill to speak, and a cast this talented makes that verbal music positively sing. Stephen McKinley Henderson proves what an underappreciated character actor he is, while Jovan Adepo gives a breakthrough performance that will hopefully lead to roles that really let him spread his wings and capitalize on the potential he has. And then there’s the great Viola Davis, who acts up a storm and makes you wonder once again why she isn’t in every movie that’s being produced nowadays.
But of course, there’s our leading man. I read one critic say that this is Davis’ show. While she is great, he could not be more wrong. As Troy Maxson, Denzel Washington owns not only every scene he’s in, but also the entire film. Even in the aforementioned final act, from which he is entirely absent, his presence looms large. It hangs over everything like a ghost, not just in the story, but in the performances by the actors who remain. In fact, that may be my one quibble with the performances overall: they are perhaps too much like Washington’s.
As the film’s primary creative force, Washington’s personality and acting style infuse everything we see. Like him, the direction is no-frills and no-nonsense, but forceful and assertive. And the other actors take their cues from their leader, taking on aspects of his own domineering technique. It works best for Washington, not only because it’s so uniquely his, but also because it fits the character he’s playing. The same can’t be said about the rest of the cast, despite their fine work and commitment.
I suppose it’s best to say that “Fences” is merely a very good movie based on a excellent play. That “merely” may make it sound like an insult, but that assessment is nothing to sniff at, and neither is this film.