Cast: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen Henderson, Jovan Adepo, Russell Hornsby, Mykelti Williamson, Saniyya Sidney
Director: Denzel Washington
Writer: August Wilson
Cinema and theatre are both very different mediums and the transition between the two is never seamless. Both have different means and limitations in how they can tell their stories which have a significant effect on their respective forms and structures. Film has a more fluid relationship with space and time than theatre does, but the stage allows for a greater level of intimacy and immediacy than film. Film is a constructed medium, one that is inherently abstract and artificial, whereas theatre is an altogether more physical and sensuous medium. Neither is superior to the other, but their differences mean that some stories work better on screen than they do on stage and vice versa. These differences were especially apparent for me when I saw Fences, based on the Pulitzer Prize winning play by August Wilson. Even if I hadn’t known beforehand that the film I was watching was an adaptation of a theatrical production, it would have become completely apparent to me within the first five minutes.
Set in 1950s Pittsburgh, the film follows Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington), a 53-year-old ex-con struggling to make a living for his family. He lives with his wife Rose (Viola Davis) and their son Cory (Jovan Adepo) and works as a trash collector with his friend of many years Jim Bono (Stephen Henderson). Other family members include Troy’s younger brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), who was left mentally impaired by a head injury he sustained in the war, and Lyons (Russell Hornsby), Troy’s estranged son from a previous relationship. Troy is an astoundingly charming and charismatic man who can talk for hours on end, recounting tales from his youth about what a great baseball player he was or about the one time he beat Death in a fistfight. Bitter about how he was turned down for the chance to become a professional baseball player, Troy forbids his son to meet with a college football recruiter. When Cory is caught neglecting his chores so he can attend football practice, Troy demands that Cory help him build a fence around the house as punishment.
Apart from the opening sequence right at the start where Troy and Jim talk while riding on the back of a garbage truck performing their rounds, just about every scene in this film consists of characters standing and talking. This is the kind of set-up that works far better in theatre, where the story exists entirely in the present and where the actor plays a far greater role in conveying the story than they do in film, than it does in the cinema. This set-up certainly can work in cinema, as it did in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, but a translation has to take place that allows the set-up to be viewed in cinematic terms if the film is to truly flourish. In other words, there is a difference between a filmed play and a play that has been adapted into a film. In Fences the performance of each scene and the transitions between them have an inescapably stagey feel to them, such as in the way that characters enter and exits their scenes almost as if they were just off-stage waiting for their cues. This doesn’t by any means make Fences a badly made film (far from it), but it did make me wish that I could have seen it on stage where the theatrical qualities would have been less distracting and perhaps even more affective.
There is plenty to admire in this film, not least of which are the powerhouse performances delivered by Washington and Davis in their Tony Award winning reprisals. Washington plays the role of a deeply angry, prideful and stubborn man with all of the presence and swagger that he’s known for. Denzel is able to make Troy remarkably likeable and relatable while also maintaining a clear dark side that comes out when Troy is at his most enraged or vulnerable. Davis is every bit his match as the steadfast Rose, a woman who loves her husband dearly and who has had a strong influence in tempering his lesser qualities but who also has her limits. Whether she’s crying in an impassioned plea towards her husband or coldly dismissing in the wake of his betrayal near the end, Davis is utterly astounding. There is also August Wilson’s astonishing screenplay, a breathtaking exploration of legacies and how they are formed, shaped and remembered, with a strong racial context.
Through Troy and his family Wilson has provided an perceptive insight into how our environment shapes us and how inescapable our legacies can be. Troy grew up in a broken home with an abusive father and escaped as soon as he was old enough. He’s lived his life being held back by his circumstances, whether it’s his social class, his race, or his responsibilities, and getting trampled on. As a father he is a strict disciplinarian, showing no love or affection as he tries to teach both Lyons and Cory to take responsibility for themselves and to live their lives decently and honestly. His own failed ambitions however lead him to sabotage whatever chance Cory might have to make it as a football player, leading to deep resentment in their relationship. However noble his intentions Troy, in his harshness and inflexibility, is in many ways as abusive to Cory as his father was to him. Here Wilson finds that people cannot escape where they come from or how they grew up. We are either the products of our parents’ worse qualities, or we are the rejection of it. Cory learns to hate his father and resolves to reject the horrifying influence he’s had on him, but eventually finds that by doing so he perhaps learned some of his father’s lessons too well. Watching all of this unfold in the film was a powerful experience, how I wish I could’ve seen it on stage.