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Fences : A Review


Estimated Reading Time : 6 minutes 27 seconds

My Rating : 2.5 out of 5 Stars

My Recommendation : See it on Netflix or Cable. No need to see this film in the theatre.

Fences, directed by Denzel Washington and with a screenplay written by the late August Wilson based on his Pulitzer and Tony Award winning play of the same name, is the story of the life and struggles of Troy Maxson, an African-American garbage man in 1950's Pittsburgh, and his wife Rose and their teenage son Cory. The film stars Denzel Washington as Troy, Viola Davis as Rose, Mykelti Williamson as Troy's handicapped brother Gabe and Jovan Adepo as Troy's teenage son Cory.

I am a unique, and some might say unfortunate combination, as I am one of those most reviled of creatures, the classically-trained actor, and yet, I am also one of those most loathsome of beings, the film school graduate. This educational background makes me not only insufferable to most people but also virtually unemployable in the real world. That said, it does give me an interesting perspective when I watch films or go to the theatre. It was the classically-trained actor side of me, which absolutely loves live theatre, that was really excited to go see Fences. Classically-trained actor me also really loves August Wilson's work, and believes he is one of the great playwrights of the last century. His ten-part "Pittsburgh cycle", of which Fences is a part, is one of the great achievements in modern playwriting. Wilson wrote the screenplay to this film adaptation of Fences in 2005, finishing it shortly before his death. Denzel Washington and Viola Davis both won Tony awards for their portrayal of Troy and Rose in a 2010 revival of Fences on Broadway. 

For those reasons and others, like most everyone I know who saw it loved it, I had great expectations heading in to see Fences. The way I saw it was that Fences is a truly fascinating story, was a wonderful play and had two transcendent actors starring in it, what could possibly go wrong? Well, as I sat down to watch Fences, the classically-trained actor part of me gave a self-congratulatory bow and elegantly stepped aside and let the film school graduate part of me come to the forefront, and that part of me realized very quickly that a hell of a lot can, and did, go wrong with this film. Fences is a great play, but, sadly, it isn't a great film. A major part of the problem is that Denzel Washington wears a directors hat for the first time in his otherwise stellar career. Washington is undoubtedly a great actor, and in many ways he is getting better and more complex as an actor as he ages, but he is certainly not a great director. And just as the great actor Denzel Washington struggled with a skill out of his wheelhouse, directing, so did August Wilson, a great playwright, struggle as a screenwriter. 

Cinema is not theatre. As the saying goes, it is "moving pictures, not moving words." And so we come upon the first major issue with the movie Fences, namely that it is written to be a stage play and is not conducive to the screen. Writing for the stage and writing for the screen are as different as say, reading the written word as opposed to speaking aloud. The rhythm and meaning change dramatically when you say words aloud contrasted to when you read them silently. This occurs for a variety of reasons, such as the physical act of speaking aloud requires the in and out of breath, the use of the voice musculature, posture, body language, intent and things of that nature. This is why the spoken word takes on a certain distinct rhythm and the written word takes on a very different rhythm. So it is with stage and screen. For instance, on stage, actors do not speak when other actors are speaking, they articulate clearly so that the back of the house can hear them, they gesticulate more grandly so that everyone can see them, and they do not turn their back to the audience as they speak. These actions, while unnatural in the real world, create a rhythm of performance which suits the medium of the stage perfectly. 

On screen, a different rhythm is created, voices can over lap, actors turn their back, they can whisper and can use the smallest and most delicate of movements to convey deep meaning. On film, speaking is at the very most, a secondary tool to tell the story and convey meaning, whereas on stage, speaking is the ultimate tool of conveying meaning and storytelling. As an example, in Shakespeare's MacBeth, in the early part of the play (Act 1 Scene 4) a character recounts a spectacular battle and everything that happened in it. It is a compelling monologue, and includes the famous line, "nothing in his life became him like the leaving of it." While this writing is basically exposition, it is still exceedingly well done. In theatre you sometimes need to have expository dialogue, but in cinema, you don't need exposition, you can just show and not tell. So, in this example, you would open MacBeth showing that great battle scene, and not having someone describe the great battle. This is one of the most major fundamental differences between theatre and film. Another difference is that film is a director's medium of visuals and stage is a writer's medium of the spoken word. 

The problem with Fences as a film is that it is entirely theatrical and not cinematic. The performances, while good, are theatrical performances, not film performances. The rhythm of the writing and storytelling is theatrical, not cinematic. The arc of the narrative is a theatrical arc, not a cinematic one. The film suffers greatly from the most rudimentary lack of understanding that the art of filmmaking is fundamentally very different from the art of theatre. In my eyes, the great blame for that falls on the film's director, Denzel Washington. 

Simply put, Denzel Washington is a dreadful director. The film lacks any sort of visual cohesion and has a myriad of bizarre and incoherent camera angles and shots scattered throughout which undercut the dramatic momentum of many scenes and the whole film. There is a sequence where Denzel does a critical monologue which feels like it was shot so haphazardly that one wonders if there were any professionals on the set at all. It is beyond strange. Washington's weak eye for visuals, along with his hapless cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen, results in a plethora of oddly framed shots and poorly executed camera maneuvers that left me shaking my head. There are other amateur directing moves that fall flat as well, such as perspective issues, random swelling of music, and a lack of visual, dramatic, and storytelling consistency in regards to the fence for which the play is titled. 

The performances from Denzel Washington and Viola Davis are highly skilled, but they lack great power to move because they are meant for the stage and not the screen. The performances ring hollow because they do not fit the screen on which they are captured. The language is the stilted language of the theatre, not the free flowing language of real life or the screen, thus it always feels like we are watching someone deliver a performance. I am sure if I were fortunate enough to see these same actors give these same performances on stage, I would be left speechless, but I saw them on screen and instead was left profoundly cold. 

Another issue with the performances, is that they feel a bit derivative of other work these great actors have done in their past. Washington's Troy is somehow physically and vocally reminiscent of his Oscar winning role in Training Day, so much so that I half thought he was going to declare, "King Kong ain't got nuthin' on me!!" at one point. Viola Davis' performance echoes nearly all her other stand out work in the past in that she plays a noble, fragile, resolute woman who, at least once during a climactic crying scene, will have snots uncontrollably running down her face. And then there is Mykelti Williamson, an actor I truly admire, who turns in a cringe-worthy performance as Troy's handicapped brother Gabe. Like Washington and Davis before him, Williamson seems to be conjuring up characters from his past, in this case his shrimp- loving character Bubba from Forest Gump

As much as I have been critical of the performances and the film, I do realize that it will receive a whole host of Oscar nominations, but I believe that is because the Academy will be projecting upon the film what it hoped to see, and not what was really there on screen. Denzel Washington and Viola Davis are shoe-ins for acting nominations, as is August Wilson for an adapted screenplay nomination. No doubt Denzel will also get a Best Director nomination as well. While I greatly admire all three of these individuals, Washington, Davis and Wilson, and their talent, skill and remarkable previous work, I think they are not at their best in Fences.

In conclusion, Fences is a lost opportunity to adapt a brilliant play to the screen. Writer August Wilson's inability to adapt his staggering playwriting talents into screen writing results, creates  an uneven and discordant film. Denzel Washington and Viola Davis give technically proficient performances that ultimately ring hollow due to the script and Washington the filmmaker's, fundamental failings. While I didn't hate Fences, I also certainly didn't love it. It is a shame that such a great story wasn't able to translate more seamlessly to the big screen, as Hollywood is in desperate need of unique and original works. At the end of the day, Fences is never able to rise above being just an ordinary film, which is disheartening because it is such an extraordinary play.