Fences Review: Washington and Davis Shine In This Strong, If Simplistic, Adaptation

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Watching Denzel Washington’s Fences, there’s no question it was adapted from a stage production (written by August Wilson). It’s a dialogue-heavy feature mostly confined to two sets, the family’s kitchen and backyard. Stylistically, this doesn’t allow Washington to flex his directorial muscles all that much, but what he puts on screen as the lead character goes a long way in making up for it.

For much of its runtime, Fences is relatively plotless. We mostly get Troy (Washington) slipping into long-winded monologues about his life and his many trials growing up black in America in the early 20th century. They’re great monologues, and Washington delivers them beautifully. But at over two hours, the pacing of the film struggles when we’re being told instead of shown for a lot of it. The reverse of that, thankfully, is in the emotion of the performances. Viola Davis as Rose, Troy’s wife of 18 years, controls every scene she’s in with a raw majesty. Jovan Adepo as Corey, Troy’s son, shows a young new talent to watch, highlighting the effects of selfish parenting through slight tonal changes and powerful microexpressions.

But as their everyday lives carry on, the baggage of their lives slowly reveals itself, and that’s when the film comes into its own and succeeds in landing its story. It’s only after we see these people at their most mundane that the story shows us what happens when these people aren’t generally okay. As a piece of character work, Fences is masterful, which is an accomplishment by both the actors and the script.

But after the film gets into a strong groove of being emotionally investing enough to make you forget this story is meant for the stage, an awkward, obviously theatrical special effect fails to translate the medium, turning a pivotal moment of emotional clarity into a distracting one. It’s a very small moment, clearly something that, on stage, would pass by unscathed. But here it sheds light on Washington’s apparent disinterest in telling this story as a film. The story itself is powerful enough to live in both artistic mediums successfully, but the effort in the transition feels a little bare bones.

Still, there’s no denying the sheer power of what Washington, Davis, and the script have brought to the screen. Fences wonderfully captures people we see every day and makes us better understand their circumstances. Race plays a big role in the story, but it doesn’t define the film. Instead, it’s characters, their histories, and their choices define it. Considering how well these explorations are handled, some simplistic direction is definitely forgivable. Grade: B+

By Matt Dougherty

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