I remembering reading this play in college. And by “reading,” I mean it in the old “school” way—getting through it as fast as I could so I could do something else. (Sorry, Mark.)
Skimming a play, moreso than other types of narrative storytelling, makes you miss a lot. Most of all, you miss the sheer force contained within the seemingly plain lines. Unfortunately, though, plays can’t just cut away to another location after a minute or so like in movies. They have to keep going and keep going, meaning that the force will come and go several times before the scene comes to an end, resulting in a series of drawn-out, talky conversations.
Fences, as good as it was—and it was good, excellent depending on whom you ask—falls victim to this plight of the stage. The first real scene takes place in one location, the characters barely moving for at least ten minutes. On the stage, that works, but on the screen, a medium of images, it just doesn’t.
I’m trying not the blame the source material, adapted by August Wilson based on his own play, but there just wasn’t enough done to, I don’t know, filmify it. The only real change from watching this onstage is the emphasis on close-ups, which show Denzel Washington and Viola Davis in glorious detail.
Fences is about Troy Maxson (Washington), a sanitation worker in 1950s Pittsburgh. He has a loving wife (Davis) and children by two different women (eventually three). One of those children wants to be a football player, but Troy is convinced that won’t get him anywhere. It’s profoundly human in its understanding of the human condition, of how certain people make the same mistakes, and I would have loved to see Washington and Davis perform it on the stage like they did (they won Tonys for this).
My problem is just the stageyness of it. It just doesn’t feel like a cinematic experience, something all films would ideally be. The performances, from top to bottom, are exemplary, a marker of Washington’s directorial ability, and the production design is fine work. I just can’t say I liked it.
On the other hand, it might get Viola Davis an Oscar, so I guess I shouldn’t complain too much. She deserves it.
Fences is in theaters now.