Fences is an adaptation of the classic August Wilson play depicting the struggles of an African American family in 50's America. Resentment, racial politics and family issues all play their part and drip through the film like a carcinogen, slowly but steadily bringing deterioration of the relationships as it progresses. However, does a much loved piece of theatre have enough to translate to cinematic art?
Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington) is a broken, bitter man. He works for the city collecting trash, brings his pay home to his wife, feeds his family and sits on the stoop drinking gin and telling tales of what could have been. He could have been a baseball player but he was black. In truth he was too old when discovered. This minor fact doesn't stop Troy from telling his tales of woe to his loyal friend Bono (Stephen Henderson), no matter how many times the stories have been told before.
He is an intimidating character, one of those strong men archetypes that we have all met. Telling their stories without the opportunity for interjection or objections, your only job is to let the siloquay come and you'd better be prepared to listen. Back chat will not be tolerated. He has his ideas about how the world works and they are not to be challenged. Troy Maxson is a bully, arrogant and for the most part unlikeable; credit must therefore go to Denzel Washington for what is a towering performance. Not since Training Day has he oozed such machismo, bravado and arrogant qualities. To make a character so unlikeable is in may ways a greater achievement than attracting the viewers empathy.
Viola Davis plays his loyal wife Rose and is the polar opposite to Troy. She is quiet, contemplative but under the surface has a strength and power that appears when he time is right. There is a beautiful subtlety in the performance of Davis that has already seen awards rightfully granted. The sideways glances, the quiet sighs, the contemplative prayers for strength are wonderfully delivered and, when all becomes too much, Rose has within her the power of a full force gale that Troy may not quite be ready for.
There is a lot to like about Fences. The family struggles we experience are heart wrenching and tug at all the right chords at all the right times. I'm just not convinced that the cinema screen is the place for this piece of theatre to play out . From very early on it feels like a stage play and never lifts its head fully enough to become truly cinematic. Given the nature of the piece, the refined space of the house to work within as a 'stage' etc. the film feels, at times, very slow and incredibly dialogue heavy. Again this is something that stems from it's theatrical past and the reverence and high regard in which the play is held.
I can't say I didn't like Fences. It has moments of greatness, particularly in the two lead performances but the shackles of Broadway never fully come off and the fence metaphor used throughout may be most applicable to the film itself as it is never quite able to escape its theatrical boundaries.