Fences: A Play on Film

Why breathe another life into a decades-old play centered around African-Americans in a working class Pittsburgh neighborhood you might ask? Well, Denzel, for starters. Washington, that is; who directs and stars in this film adaptation of August Wilson’s Fences. In a recent interview, Washington has said bringing the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning play to the silver screen was his most important work.

Fences is the sixth story in Wilson’s ten-play Pittsburgh Cycle, a series exploring black life in the 20th century. The sublime screen performances make Fences worthy of its predecessor – its most notable iteration being the 2010 Broadway revival, which starred much of the film’s cast. Film is arguably more accessible than a Broadway play (Hamilton, anyone?), so if you missed the 2010 run, this is the next best thing.

Patriarch Troy Maxson (Washington) is a former Negro League baseball all star – and it shows –  as his rhetoric teems with metaphors from the game, “Death ain’t nothing but a fastball on the outside corner.” A bit too early for his time in a discriminatory league, this misfortune has since ruled Troy’s life, as he later admits he’s been stuck in the same place for 18 years. As the film opens, we see him leaving work as a garbage man on payday with best friend Bono (Stephen Henderson) in tow as they head to Troy’s modest row house in a black Pittsburgh neighborhood. They are holding court in the backyard with a bottle of gin, celebrating the occasion of making it through another week, when his devoted wife of 18 years, Rose (Viola Davis), steps out to join them, breaking away from her supper making, and chastising Troy about his drinking.

Viola Davis is 5/10 reasons to see this film. If Denzel is the pitcher, she’s the batter, hitting this role well outta the park. She will undoubtedly be nominated, and, likely win an Oscar; this is her Oscar performance. (At this point, a world where Viola Davis doesn’t have an Oscar seems silly.) Her portrayal as Rose is mesmerizing. Initially we see her mostly content with pleasing and tempering her husband. All while being the reliable matriarch for her family, she and charming Troy engage in a playful, sexy banter. It isn’t until much later in the film, after Troy reveals an irreparable indiscretion, that we see hell indeed hath no fury like a woman scorned. In this moment, Davis isn’t afraid to get ugly – runny-nosed, lip-quivering, ugly cry ugly – while delivering the most heart-rending monologue you will see on screen this year. While Davis and Washington are the acting heavyweights, Jovan Adepo as the youngest Maxson son, Cory, Mykelti Williamson as Troy’s brother Gabriel, and Stephen Henderson as Bono could all be nominated as supporting actors.

Fences is a faithful adaptation of the play, and that is to its credit and detriment. On the big screen, it’s very stagey and essentially comes across as a play on film. A film set in a very small backyard at that, which manages to make the viewer feel claustrophobic at times. Perhaps that was a concerted nod to the proverbial fence that Troy finally begins building, after being asked by Rose some months prior. As Bono said, “Some people build fences to keep people out…and other people build fences to keep people in.” In a twist of fate, it’s only when Troy ultimately feels powerless that the fence is completed.  

As an avid theatre-goer, I didn’t mind the stagey feel. I can see how film lovers might yearn for a more cinematic escapism from its density. It’s special when a play, translated to the big screen done well, still provides the nuance and intimacy of a stage performance while excelling at giving the audience visual insight. All else considered, this screenplay really shines in Wilson’s dialogue. Which is no mistake, as Wilson also adapted the screenplay. It’s forthright, loquacious and fiery and every word is intentional. Washington’s adept at the singsong cadence of Wilson’s work, from jive to the patois of that time. So much so that it takes a keen ear at times to actually hear this film.

It keeps to the play’s original 1950’s look, feel and themes, but Fences is no relic.  As long as present-day America can still relate to the story’s subject matter and themes of race relations, death and baseball, viewing Fences will be worth it.

Maia Jannele tells people she’s a writer, thinker and funny lady, in no particular order. A “retired” arts blogger, she now prefers Twitter for live commentary on everything from operas to Insecure. She’s currently easing into standup comedy. Twitter