Long gone are the days when Hollywood would regularly tap Broadway for film ideas. Sure, we get a very occasional Into the Woods or Sweeney Todd, but since the millennium changed over to the 2s, it’s more common for Broadway to take Spiderman, or The Lion King, or Carrie than the other way around. So when a play, granted, a Pulitzer Prize winning play, from 1987 made its way to the big screen nearly 30 years after its initial release it was pleasantly surprising, even when that play was recently revived in 2010 with Denzel Washington and Viola Davis playing the lead roles. Fences brings that revival to a larger audience with Washington now not just playing the lead role, but also acting as director.
Much of the original cast from the 2010 version of the Cort Theater show makes its way into the screen version as does the set apparently, which while obviously not an exact copy, seems to have been lovingly recreated for the film shoot, except this time without a fourth wall missing. This sums up both the best element of Fences and the element that is most likely to turn people off, the fact that this really is the umpeenth performance of a stage play put on by some fantastic actors whom aren’t live.
Most of the hype around Fences has centered around the performances of Denzel Washington and Viola Davis as Troy and Rose Maxon respectively, and that hype is absolutely deserved. You can tell that these two have worked together as these two characters for a long time, because they give performances that are not just good, but that I can only describe as “lived in”, in that they absolutely inhabit and become these two people. For most of the movie, you don’t feel like a spectator so much as a voyeur, for better or worse, but that is entirely due to the fact that you forget you are watching actors in a role, at least until a monologue with a close up, and there are quite a few to be seen here, is put on for us.
The original play is a Pulitzer Prize winner, and since what you are seeing on screen deviates only slightly, you are seeing some of the best character writing that can be put to paper. The story centers on Troy, a black man who was once a professional baseball player in the Negro leagues, and who thinks he could have been much more had the color barrier been broken when he’d been playing. He now lives with his wife, Rose, and son, Cory (played by Jovan Adepo), and works as a garbage man. The story is very much a character piece that show what the pressures of race, poverty, ambition, and pride can do to a man, and it never seeks to sugar coat anything, never make villains nor heroes where there aren’t any to be had. It’s realistic and intimate, and if that sounds appealing to you then you will be blown away by what you see here, otherwise, there’s a good chance you will be bored.
Fences has some of the finest acting of the year on display, and it is worth seeing for that alone. The story is an important one, too, and while you have to dig deep to get the most out of it, you’ll find it’s one worth digging into. However, since it is such a stagey, cerebral piece, it isn’t necessary to see it in the movie theaters. The best way to see it, honestly, would be on stage where it was meant to be seen, though you won’t get Washington and Davis then. Catch Fences, it’s an incredibly meaningful and thoughtful work of art, but don’t feel the need to rush out to see it, especially since it’s one that needs to be taken in slowly to really get everything out of it you can.
Rating: 7.6 out of 10