Review: Fences



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Full disclosure: I can really only fairly review the first hour of this film.  And that first hour was so dull and boring that I excused myself from the theater.  This film – at least what I saw of it – is proof to me that not all great stage plays can become great films.

“Fences” is a great stage play.  Like most of August Wilson’s work, the script tells the story of African-American fathers and sons and explores dynamics of their relationships.  Like most of Wilson’s work, this story depicts each character vibrantly, not afraid to explore their ugly sides.  This story in particular features a lead character with so many flaws, it’s difficult to imagine an actor finding anything likable within him.

But Denzel Washington could find the likability in Adolf Hitler, I suppose.  And he makes “Troy Maxon,” a 53-year-old garbage man three-dimensional despite his many demons.  Troy has a checkered past.  He’s been to prison.  He loves women, including his long-suffering wife, “Rose” (Viola Davis).  He was a phenomenal athlete but missed his opportunity to compete in professional leagues.  He says it’s because he’s black.  Rose contends it’s because he was too old.  One has to wonder if his felony conviction for murder and robbery might have also impacted things.

Troy has two sons; one from a previous relationship.  “Lyons” (Russell Hornsby) who is pursuing his love of music, much to Troy’s chagrin.  But more infuriating to Troy is he and Rose’s son, “Cory” (Jovan Adepo) and his pursuit of athletics.  Given that Troy didn’t have the option to play sports professionally, he does everything he can to stand in his son’s way to do the same.  One of the more powerful scenes in the part of the film between the two.

Troy also has a brother, “Gabe” (Mykelti Williamson) who has a metal plate in his head from his time in the war.  Also featured is the wonderful Stephen Henderson (“Manchester By the Sea”) as Troy’s friend, neighbor, co-worker, and a former inmate himself.

Denzel is a powerful presence on film.  Viola Davis might even outdo him, wringing out all the heartache, charm, and torment that Rose feels for having stood by this wretched man for so many years.  The acting is superb, make no mistake about it.  But good acting alone does not make for a great film.

I decided to leave when Denzel told the story about his prison experience and the events that led up to them.  This would have been a fantastic time to overlay visual depictions of said events.  There were other opportunities for flashbacks or at least something other than just the actors faces to be on the giant screen. In the theatre, people sitting around talking works well.  In movies, not so much.  Not even when it’s Denzel and Viola.

I sincerely hope this film does very well at the box office.  I hope more great plays – including those from August Wilson – are turned into screen adaptions. I just hope that screenwriters take advantage of the medium they are working in.  Without fully utilizing its cinema-oriented opportunities, I’d have rather they just filmed this one on the Broadway stage – with a live audience – and showcased the play as is.

Director(s): Denzel Washington
Writer(s): August Wilson
Notable Cast: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Mykelti Williamson

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