Here’s the thing – I am a big fan of all the performing arts, and when it comes to the three kinds of narrative performance, there are different methods of control. In all of them, there are different components, each one vital and necessary, but there is always the one figure that is most important, depending on the medium you are looking at. Film is primarily a director’s medium, whereas theater is an actor’s medium, and television is arguably a writer’s medium. Therefore, when it comes to crossing from one to the other, it can be extraordinarily difficult, and while it may seem simple to bring one medium into the realm of another, it is far more complex than that. This is where a lot of stage productions that are turned into film get it wrong, and if the necessary effort isn’t put in, then it can be a complete disaster. But if it is done right, the result can be a resounding success.
Fences is one of the most important plays of all time, and I am surprised it took over three decades to bring it to the screen. August Wilson wrote a compelling and heartbreaking play about African-American conflict and poverty in the 1950s, right in the middle of the growing Civil Rights Movement. It was only a matter of time before someone made a film based on this incredible play. It was an unwritten belief that someone would go ahead and adapt the play into a film, and create something as incredible as the play itself. The problem was this – August Wilson himself wrote the screenplay to Fences, and as brilliant of a playwright as he was, he didn’t understand one crucial thing – what works on stage doesn’t always work on film, and I can say that Fences has a huge glaring flaw that is difficult to look past, because it occupies the vast majority of this film, and it just cannot be ignored.
That flaw is pretty simple – Fences is just way too verbose. Now understand this – in a stage production, you have a relatively static set, and the story needs to be conveyed through the words and actions of the actors on stage. With a film, you have seemingly infinite resources – you are limited to a single stage, and you have pretty much every resource possible to create your film. Why is it that in filming Wilson’s script, director Denzel Washington seems to simply try and film the script, rather than make a film? For the most part, Fences is presented almost exactly how it is on stage – a small group of actors bound mostly to a single location, having discussions. I know this works on stage and it is powerful when you see the true intensity of these words out loud. On film, it is, for lack of a more refined word, dreadfully boring. Right from the beginning of the film, the characters talk and talk, and they don’t stop talking right up until the end.
There were obviously some liberties taken by Washington to explore some space that isn’t possible on stage, but for the most part, Washington refuses to make use of flashback sequences, or different location work, or anything that has made other stage-to-screen productions successful. There was clearly effort put into making Fences look authentic and cinematic – but that is all tarnished when you realize that Washington failed to create any non-verbal atmosphere. To be honest, Fences feels like it was filmed over a weekend, because it just felt somewhat rushed, which is a shame, because this was actually a very good film that I did like tremendously. It took me four paragraphs and a lot of verbosity to get to this point, but I did indeed enjoy Fences very much – which makes the enormous flaws in this film seem so much more tragic. You need to keep up with this film, and because it is so utterly dialogue-driven, much of the impact of the story is lost if you fall behind even a little bit. Of course dialogue is important in a film, and it certainly does showcase an impressive amount of talent on behalf of the actors, but that is strictly for theater. Acting on film also requires a lot more silence and reaction, rather than just dialogue, which is a problem. However, Fences is still an excellent film, and there is heart in this film, which makes the verbosity of this film somewhat forgivable.
I can’t blame the director for not understanding how to properly translate a play to the screen, because when the director is Denzel Washington, who not only is a highly esteemed actor, but also someone who performed this very play on Broadway, you can understand why he had difficulty constructing Fences as a perfect film. Obviously this wasn’t Washington’s first time as a director, but his two previous films weren’t towering directorial masterpieces either. I feel like Washington was so passionate about this material, he just wanted it on film – and he doesn’t understand that just having a great script and dedicated performers isn’t enough to make a great film. To be fair, however, he didn’t do a bad job either. There is definitely something approaching an atmosphere in this film, and it does (at least visually) do the material justice. It has the appearance of the 1950s Sidney Poitier drama, and it also has the heart to go with it.
I can look past the flaws in Fences because it has some very good performances. Washington himself departs his usual characters and plays the role of Troy Maxson with a mix of childish immaturity and furious intensity, and while it is far from being his best performance (he actually came off as extraordinarily hammy most of the time), it was still delightful to see Washington at work with such an interesting character. Much like Washington, Mykelti Williamson doesn’t understand that he is performing in a film, not on stage, and unfortunately, Williamson is stuck with a role that is almost entirely impossible to get right. Mental disabilities are impossible to represent properly on screen, and while sometimes there is a chance to get it right (such as Tom Hanks’ beloved performance in Forrest Gump – which Williamson was actually in and should’ve taken a lesson or two from), mental disability on film can so easily slip into the region of “Simple Jack”, which was parodied perfectly in Tropic Thunder. Much of the time, I wanted to shout at Washington, Williamson and Jovan Adepo that they were acting in a film, not on stage, so they should just turn down the intensity for a moment and concentrate on creating characters that are compelling without having to constantly be so obviously acting – film allows an actor to experiment with a lot more than just saying their lines. Once again, Washington was very good (I can’t say the same for Williamson or Adepo, the first who just didn’t grasp the character in a way that wasn’t bordering on a caricature, the latter just not being very good and overall just being too over-dramatic to make the character of Cory even vaguely compelling).
If you want to know how over-the-top and hammy the rest of the cast were, you just need to look at the fact that they make Viola Davis look subtle. Now I adore Viola, and I believe she is one of the best actresses working today – but when it comes to performances that are over-the-top and very intense, Viola seems to be the way to go. Hardly ever hammy, she is definitely very intense. Yet, in Fences she is better than she has ever been, in my opinion. Her portrayal of Rose Lee Maxson is delicate, sophisticated and very moving. Throughout the film, she undergoes several changes in her method of performance, going from delightful and pleasant to heartbreaking and intense, but she never goes too far. Even in her most intense and emotional scene, where others might go too far, she handles the moment with the perfect blend of vulnerability and emotion. Davis is actually incredible in this film, and she surprised me, because if there was a film where Davis could justify going all-in in terms of overacting, it would be this, yet she manages to bring to the screen one of the more compelling performances of the year. I also need to praise Stephen McKinley Henderson, the stage veteran in the cast who somehow manages to give the most grounded and realistic performance. In short, watch Fences for Viola Davis, but be charmed by Henderson, who is just delightful.
Fences is a good film, and I am glad it was brought to the screen in this way. It may be a deeply flawed film, and it may have glaring issues that prevent it from being a great film, but it was the film the play deserved. The material was necessary and it was important that the message this story conveyed was spread further than just the stage. Most of all, Fences has a deep heart and a visible soul, and it features performances from a cast that may not all be very good, but they do manage to bring this story to life and create a film that is compelling and often heartbreaking. It is a very good film, and even if it doesn’t live up to the play’s legacy, I am just so glad it was made in a way that does honour August Wilson’s incredible legacy, as flawed as the filmmaking may have been.