Adaptations of stage plays often struggle to fill the big screen. Too often they feel small, restricted and unable to tell stories in the language of cinema. Denzel Washington’s film of August Wilson’s play, which he directs and performs in, manages to break away from these challenges though showing it is possible to stay with the conventions of stage drama while presenting a story that is entirely appropriate for this different medium.
Wilson’s original Pulitzer and Tony Award winning play is an intimate portrait of a middle aged African American husband, father and friend in 1950s Pittsburgh. Troy is a man who feels the desperate frustrations of living in a country still tied to horribly outdated ideas of racism and equality while unable to see the tragic failings in his own attachment to traditional notions of male entitlement and supremacy. Like most movies born of stage productions Fences is dialogue heavy and the action is almost entirely restricted to one building but what the film is able to open up is the intimacy the audience achieves with the characters. The action and explosions here are emotional and the view the film gives into its characters is as gripping as any car chase.
Opposite Denzel Washington in the lead role is Viola Davis. Her portrayal of Rose, Troy’s wife, is simultaneously reserved and raw, both subjugated and strong and beautifully real. Mykelti Williamson and Stephen Henderson are also excellent in supporting roles but it is Davis’ film.
Washington’s handling of the material as a director is skilled but measured. There are occasions when he brings the action to different locations. The most obvious of these is an opening moment’s truck ride through the Pittsburgh district which serves as a perfect introduction to the people, and the community that is so integral to their identity. Mostly though the visual significance of the locations in which he places key conversations is important but not showy. Ultimately Fences is centred on the dialogue and the performances – and both are quite brilliant.