Fences feels like an accomplished play. Everything that I’m sure shone throughout the various stagings of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize winning classic shines here. Under Denzel Washington’s direction though it never feels like it quite makes that leap to a film. That’s not to suggest inferiority by no means, I’ve never seen it staged (and am unlikely to) and, for its missteps, it still packs a raw power to it.
It’s an actor’s movie see. I’m gonna list them all off right away because they deserve to be put front and centre. Denzel Washington; Viola Davis; Stephen Henderson; Jovan Adepo; Russell Hornsby and Mykelti Williamson. They’re the heart of this movie beating so fast it feels about to explode. The film ain’t no mild mannered affair, when it says drama, it means drama, with all that entails. Dear god are the depths of emotion dredged here. Material of this calibre leads to career best performances, seems like nobody wants to let the memory of one of America’s great playwrights down so they all put in the work here.
Helps that the majority of this cast is lifted from the 2010 Broadway revival of the play. (Dir. Kenny Leon) They got that flow and pep and verve that come from experience. The ensemble scenes here are second to none, there’s an effortlessness around them, a loose easygoing slide as these characters whip and turn about each other. It’s in the duologues that the film starts to falter. Denzel seems less comfortable navigating the geography of a pair, when the cast gets reduced down to two the life seems to drain. The previously active and engaging interplay of bodies and space becomes static dialogue, which for all its life on stage can’t capture that same vision on film.
Which is tragic when the performances are so good, just to be let down by some clumsy camerawork, some clumsy edits. Shame. What Denzel (and cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen) play with much better is the space. The script wisely confines most of the action to the same location as the play, the small back yard of a Pittsburgh city house. Through their framing choices they contort this location into every mood, in time of levity it can feel wide and expansive, at others it is barely big enough to contain our actors. They do the amazing job of taking a stage and making it cinema in this regard, y’all can see they trying elsewhere too but it just fails to permeate.
All suitably epic though, which you don’t expect from a few months in the life of an American Trash cleaner. Maybe it’s because America don’t have too many social realist pictures, and of those even fewer are about the experiences of black Americans, and of those they mostly take whitey’s point of view. Importantly, ain’t nobody write like August Wilson. Do you really want to go your whole life without hearing that? Of course not, we can say it imperfect, but we often forget how perfect perfect is. And this, this is pretty damn close.