Directed by Denzel Washington
Starring Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Mykelti Williamson, Jovan Adepo
Released on 17th February 2017
Fences is based on the original play of the same name by August Wilson, first produced in 1983 and set in the 1950s. Wilson also wrote the screenplay for this film version film, based on his original, while its director/leading man and leading lady, Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, both appeared in the play’s Broadway revival in 2010, playing the same roles.
Washington plays Troy, in his youth a promising baseball player but, because of the colour bar in major league baseball, he could never progress beyond the Negro League. Now a bin man, he’s married to the loyal and loving Rose (Davis). They have two sons and he a taste for gin and a mouth like an express train. But underneath the non-stop talking is a bitter man who resents what life did to him and whose anger eventually alienates him from his own family.
Let’s get the stage background out of the way. Basing a film on a play can have its downsides: all too frequently, the screen version looks constrained and stage bound by the original. Yet sometimes it can be an advantage if intensity is the goal, which is pretty much what happens here. You can see the stage sets in your mind’s eye – the backyard is the perfect example – and the majority of the action takes place either there or in the house. Limiting the locations in that way certainly helps intensify the many and deep emotions on display. There is a downside, though. From time to time, the screenplay sounds as if it’s been written for the stage as well, and the acting follows the same style. There’s a little bit too much declaiming, some reactions are a touch too big for the screen. But, thankfully, this doesn’t happen enough for it to become a problem – because there is a huge amount to enjoy and appreciate in this film.
This is Washington’s third feature film as a director and easily his most successful to date, with four Oscar nominations and Viola Davis gathering a mighty collection of Best Supporting Actress trophies. Let’s not get into the “what’s the difference between a supporting and leading role?” debate, even though this is one of those instances where her part is clearly the female lead.
The story brings Arthur Miller to mind – the father with the critical character flaw, his estranged relationships with his sons, the devoted and strong wife who has to carry everything on her shoulders. Wilson, however, concentrates on the African American community, documenting the barriers placed in their way in the 50s. He has another thing in common with Miller, and that’s the deeply emotional, often distressing, nature of the narrative. Here, it’s a father physically fighting his youngest son, while Troy’s brother, Gabriel (an impressive Mykelti Williamson) is a veteran of World War II with a metal plate in his head that has severely affected him as a person.
It’s a very wordy piece – there’s little in the way of physical action, apart from the fight between father and son – which makes it not just an actor’s piece, but more of an acting masterclass, especially from Davis and Washington, who are both excellent. Davis’s Rose is under no illusions about her husband, but it doesn’t stop her loving him – even when she discovers a shocking truth that she never suspected and which blows their whole relationship apart. Washington’s Troy is so fond of the sound of his own voice that you wonder how he finds the time to do anything but talk, but he does. Some of it is off screen and some is to do with the fences of the title, surrounding the house and yard and constructed to protect the family, him in particular, from death.
A strong, thought-provoking film with stellar performances, you can’t help but wonder about its appeal at the box office. If it hadn’t attracted so much attention this awards season – and, indeed justified it, in Davis’s case – would it be getting substantial distribution in the UK? Would it have made in excess of $32 million in the States? Possibly not, because on the face of it, Fences is an unlikely box office hit, but it’s also a reassuring one, showing there’s rooms for films like this alongside all the re-boots, superheroes, animation and general blockbusters. And that’s something of a relief.
Fences is currently in selected cinemas and is released nationwide on Friday, 17 February 2017. It’s reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 16 February 2017.