Denzel Washington’s Fences (2016) – well, really it’s not Denzel Washington’s at all. He wouldn’t even want it to be known as his. Fences, based on the August Wilson play of the same name, was a long time coming in the world of the big screen. After its enormously successful Broadway opening in 1987, the rights to a film were snatched up quick as a fox, and Wilson himself wrote multiple drafts for a screenplay soon after. Afterwards, for whatever reason (corporate racism), Wilson’s insistence on the film getting a black director in the name of cultural authenticity put the movie in the dreaded Development Hell for nearly thirty years.
August Wilson passed away in 2005, but his wishes seem to have been kept alive. Fences, right off the bat (a pun you’ll understand soon) is a very black movie. The dialogue, the attitudes, and most importantly the subject matter, which Denzel Washington and Viola Davis have a full understanding of having performed the play themselves in 2010, are very specific to being a black person. It’s the same reason Stephen Spielberg shouldn’t have directed The Color Purple (1985), and it’s the same reason I shouldn’t be writing this review. Something – and maybe not always very noticeably, but something is lost when a white person tries to tell the story of a black experience.
So let’s keep this review in film terms, eh? Fences stars Washington as late-middle-aged Troy Maxson, a garbage man in 1950s Pittsburgh, who should have been playing baseball in the major leagues had the white-dominated industry not held him back. Maxson, throughout his life, has never fully recovered from this letdown, and apart from the literal fence he tries to build with his son Cory (Jovan Adepo), spirals into building metaphorical ones between himself and his loved ones. Viola Davis delivers an Oscar-worthy performance as Troy’s wife, Rose, who wants nothing more than to have a stable family life, forcing her to try but not always succeed in inserting herself in the drama between her husband and her son.
I’ve gotta be real with you guys, I’m having a hard time even putting this review in film terms! After all, this is a play. Using Wilson’s first draft of the screenplay, this movie is so transparently a play, I may as well have been sitting in front of a stage. From the quick, poetic dialogue to the wide-shot cinematography, this is theater put on the screen. Does this make it a bad movie? Not at all. In fact, I think we need more movies like this, which remind us of a simpler time in film; when the transition from plays to movies was just beginning, and writers only knew how to write dialogue-driven stories without the luxury of a camera dictating what you can/should/or shouldn’t do. Does this make it a great movie? Not necessarily. But we need more like it. So Josh, come on, is it a good movie? Let’s talk about that.
Much like Troy Maxson thinking his son can’t make it as a football player, this is a movie that acts like it doesn’t know that the medium has changed. There are precious few one-shots, and everything is framed in such a way where the environment feels very enclosed, very much like a stage set. This is not a bad thing. Had the cinematography matched the endless dialogue, I would have had a seizure. The visual style of the film matches the tone of the subject matter perfectly, with everything being delivered to you matter-of-factly like you’re watching a John Ford movie. You feel like you’re watching the Maxson family duke it out from just beyond the fence, and every time the movie does remind you of what it is, with select depth-of-focus shots at key moments, you can’t help but notice. Those shots are jarring and serve to cue you in that those scenes are particularly significant.
While it should be assumed that every scene is significant (because they are), the nature of the dialogue could make you forget that at times. Nonstop talking gets weary in film as it does in theater, and it can be difficult to process all of the information at times. Things are happening off-screen that the audience is only ever told about, which to our blessed generation of modern moviegoers might come off as strange. I have a hard time even dedicating the writing to the movie because I’m about 98% sure that it’s an almost exact transcription of the original Wilson play. That being said, the writing is fantastic. Aside from the unbeatable songlike dialogue, themes are established early, subtly, and matter-of-factly, Troy’s bitterness and jealousy is presented to you on a magnificent and slow incline before he fully erupts, and the messages you’re left with at the end are beautiful, poignant, and conflicting.
So this is a good movie then, and you should go see it. Whether it’s fair to critique as a film or not, Fences is what it is – an incredible story that’s been put on a movie screen. Good dialogue writing is something that has become taken for granted, and had the near-thirty years of pre-production not taken August Wilson, I’d like to think that he’d be satisfied with the words he wrote being put there.