The bulk of adapted movies nowadays, for better or worse, stay true and blue to their source material — this is what they must do to earn the comparison. That’s a wider artistic aisle to cross in some cases than others; interpreting plays, in particular, poses an especially hefty task. The theater’s tactile environment is limited (due to the physical boundaries of the stage), and the meaning of camera angles in the realm of its storytelling is void — the weight of the plot must be compacted within thick dialogue. For filmmakers, these are mechanical nuances to be respected. A solid filmmaker will treat them as spiritual tones to be tended to with purpose.
This parameter of location, since we’re on the topic, is crucial for the development of the recent Fences, Denzel Washington’s directorial take on the 1983 script by August Wilson, adjusted here for the screen. Troy (originally portrayed by James Earl Jones in the Broadway premiere) is our protagonist, a blue collar trash collector living in a rundown, postwar neighborhood. He works countless hours to keep a roof over his modest two-story lot, which soon becomes a recognizable imprint on the viewer’s mind; we rarely venture anywhere more than a block from it during Fences’s 140-minute run-time. The scenery has as much personality as the human actors do (the cast includes Washington and Viola Davis) — it remains fixed, just as Troy’s character does. He’s been stuck — in his own words — to the meager, nine-to-five lifestyle he’s belabored since the day his professional baseball career was taken from him more than a decade ago, whether by his fault or others’.
His potential has escaped him, but his ambition hasn’t. Troy (played by Washington) sees himself as his household’s alpha wolf, and he’s upfront about the gratitude he feels his family owes him, even as his amazingly patient wife Rose (Davis) subtly conveys when he not-so-subtly oversteps. He’s quick to celebrate his incremental victories (often coming in the form of a paycheck), and he’s slow to admit his shortcomings. It’s dog-eat-dog terrain for him; he’s a tough father who deals with his two, increasingly defiant sons by clutching an iron fist. It makes sense for him to act this way. He believes he lives in a world where his sons can’t expect to get much better treatment in their own future. Just look where he’s ended up.
While Fences is a lot more than one performance (Davis is notably stellar in a pivotal scene, though spoilers restrict me from elaborating), it is more or less centered on one character. Is it too much, therefore, to gum it up to two paragraphs? Counter-question: could you narrow your worth as a person down to two paragraphs? I have many thoughts on Fences, most of which are good ones. Like Death of a Salesman, this is an inspection of a life lived by a man with little time or desire to observe it himself — when he does, it’s his own, ruthlessly honest retrospection that causes his fall. Troy is neither a hero nor a villain, but then again, the film reflects that it’s not very often you get a true example of either. I will confess that I haven’t studied the theatrical instrumentation of Wilson’s piece, but I can affirm that Mr. Washington has done it justice. In his hands, Fences, once again, is spirited, engaging, and challenging.
It isn’t something to sneeze at when a secondary document collects that last trait. Personal anguish and frustration are themes that naturally pop in the movies, but they must still be allotted care; much drama ensues in this film, though little of it feels forced. For example, Troy — mainly by his own motives — works tirelessly on a fence for his house’s yard (ah, titular reference). As his character range allows, he does it for a multitude of reasons, whether to simply keep busy or to establish his needy hand of supremacy over his son Cory (Jovan Adepo), who he reprimands for pursuing a future in a sports world dominated by white culture (or is it that Troy can’t allow Cory to surpass him?). These concepts are filmed as subscripts rather than bold texts; they speak louder once accumulated anyway.
Perhaps most intrinsically, however, he builds this fence to keep the devil at bay, materialistically and metaphorically. Troy knows Satan intricately and painfully; where the allegorical father is a nurturing figure, Troy’s has been one of torment, perhaps the physical manifestation of the devil itself. Now 53 years old, Washington’s character speaks of the monster as if it were an adversary in Friday night poker, literally equating their curiously chummy relationship to a wrestling match (this moment in the picture, my friends, is why I go to the movies). Even so, the emotional knife has dug deeper than the buoyant Troy lets on; he isn’t colliding with the devil as much as he is running from it. Davis’ resources act as a wonderful anchor through Rose — in times of Troy’s weakness, she is the glue of the family. But the father and husband, a little wary on both fronts, treks on, and while the final resolution with his spiritual opponent may be a little ambiguous, his inner conflict indisputably shows through. This is yet another showcase for both Davis and Washington.
With a little over a month left on the Oscars clock (the nominees are announced next Tuesday, January 24th), audiences will flock to La La Land, Moonlight, and Manchester By the Sea to fit in a last minute screening before the potential Best Picture winner gets chosen. I cannot speak for those films, as I have not yet seen them (I know, I know). I can, however, speak for Fences: don’t count it out. It’s a real pleaser.
It seems inappropriate to bring up Rogue One in this article, but it was the last movie I had seen in theaters walking into this one, and alas, it was what I found myself thinking about during the early scenes. I had strained myself trying to make something out of all the explosions and swooshes and bangs, to little avail (it should be no surprise that I’m talking about Rogue One here). I might be a broken record, but a movie theater does not attribute its atmosphere to its industrial-sized features alone; there is an alternative space that the projector fills, an energy that vibrates when the film meets it with a breath, not a shout. If I’m sounding vague, it’s probably because I am. Regardless, I found that space in Fences. If you’ll be obliged to spend your ten bucks on Mr. Washington’s film, you may agree.
The movie helps. You can argue with me about the quality of today’s popular cinema, though it’s fair to say that most of its mainstream channels don’t have two original ideas to rub together. For now, we’re in the era of replicating and rehashing, but that doesn’t mean that we haven’t been given good, if not safe, examples that can stand on their own. Fences is one of them, but it’s better than safe, and not so coincidentally, it’s certainly better than good.
Block Rating: ★ ★ ★ 1/2