Fences

A Misguided Adaptation of the Influential 1985 Play


Denzel Washington’s newest directorial project is the long gestated film adaptation of the seminal August Wilson play Fences; a reflection on the black experience in the 1950s, making up a part of Wilson’s ten-part ‘Pittsburgh Cycle’ that analyzes black life in each decade of the 20th century.  As almost all of bibliography, Fences takes place in Wilson’s hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  Wearing multiple hats, director Denzel Washington stars as Troy Maxson, an over the hill Negro League ballplayer turned trash man with a chip on his shoulder, and a lifetime of regret in his heart. Washington works opposite Viola Davis as Maxson’s wife Rose Lee; reuniting the two actors from the 2010 Broadway revival.

Running a very long 139 minutes, Fences follows the original play in its entirety, and in doing so; misses the mark in capitalizing on the advantages of film as a distinctive medium.  August Wilson is listed as the sole screenwriter, making Fences (the film) a line-for-line reproduction, and not an ‘adaptation’ of the play specifically geared to a film audience.

If audience members wanted to see the play version of Fences, they could have gone to Broadway, or their local theater house, or read Wilson’s work. There should be concrete reasons for adapting a theater piece into film. Washington should have asked himself – ‘What can I do in a film that can’t be done on stage?’; and if no worthy answer was found, the film project should have been rethought.

The dialogue in Fences is ‘stage’y’ and theatrical, which works as a play but has a disingenuous and over-rehearsed feel in film.  Modifying the source material for the screen could have gone a long way in eliminating some of the many preachy sermons and monologues that bog down this overstuffed film; and kill the pacing of Washington’s film. None of this is to say that the finished product is not exactly what Denzel Washington was aiming for; but more a question if his instincts were on point.

Further cementing this line of criticism, Washington and Davis play their parts as if they were still standing on a stage; as does the rest of his cast. Acting in Fences is hyper-energized; and for this type of ‘working stiff’ story, it is disjointed from the themes covered in the story.  One other note about the on screen performances; Fences shows that the massively talented Denzel Washington doesn’t play ‘drunk’ very believably.

Washington’s Fences is not a complete failure; production design and film locales should be commended for their authenticity.  From the look of this on the big screen, no expense was spared in the recreation of 1950’s Pittsburgh.  I must admit that I have a personal connection to the city of Pittsburgh, and from that experience; I can say that Washington’s Pittsburgh looks the part from every street corner and walnut tree.  Filmed in the city of Pittsburgh in the summer of 2016, Fences‘ $24 Million budget was well used.

The final act, and especially the closing half hour, leaves no doubt that Fences would have been better left alone in the theater.  Drastic jumps in character motivations and thought patterns are coupled with a heavily Christian themed final scene that comes seemingly out of left field.  The direct-to-TV ending of Fences is worthy of a Lifetime Channel Movie.


Scores:

  • Directing: 6/10 – The finished production meets Washington’s vision, but was he misguided?
  • Screenwriting: 4/10 – This isn’t a knock on the source material, but on the material’s inability to translate to film
  • Acting: 6/10 – The entire cast is committed to delivering a pitch perfect recreation of the Broadway production, and would win plenty of Tony Awards if this had been on a stage and not a screen
  • Production: 8/10 – An authentic recreation of 1950s Pittsburgh

Overall:

6/10 – August Wilson’s influential work detailing the black experience in working class 1950s middle America needs some rework to be a hit on the big screen.  Denzel Washington’s faithful 2016 adaptation will win over Wilson fans, but not bring anyone new into the fold.

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