This review is also up at Channel 24
What it's about
Based on the Pulitzer prize and Tony award winning play of the same name, Fences tells the story of Troy Maxson, a troubled ex-con and baseball player, doing his best to raise his working-class, African American family in the tumultuous 1950s, when the Civil Rights movement hadn't yet hit and the United States of America was heavily divided by class and race.
What we thought
The major failing of Fences is almost immediately evident right from its opening scene – which, ironically enough, is probably the least obvious example of such in the entire film. As we follow our (anti?) hero, Troy (Denzel Washington) and best friend, Jim Bono (Stephen Henderson) back to the Maxson homestead from their blue-collar job, the two men converse in a way that mixes the rhythm and flow of something between Shakespearean verse and street poetry with grounded, then contemporary dialogue. This scene is arguably the most kinetic in the entire film but it's already clear that what we have here is more a filmed version of a play, performed on more realistic sets on a very slightly larger canvas, than a fully-fledged piece of cinema.
However, though the sheer staginess of the film does stop it from quite becoming the masterpiece that the play undoubtedly is, Fences remains an extraordinary piece of work – and, if most of us aren't fortunate enough to see the real-deal on stage, this film acts as a pretty great consolation prize.
Denzel Washington returns to the director's chair for the fourth time in his career, even as he brings to the screen a character that he has played on stage in well over 100 performances - and the result is almost exactly what you would expect it to be. Washington clearly has tremendous reverence for the original play, resulting in direction that is as safe and cautious as his performance is lived-in and almost effortlessly powerful. His work in front of the camera here is unimpeachable as he turns out a performance that stands as a high point in an already distinguished career but one can't help but wonder how the film would have looked under the direction of someone less attached to the material.
Still, it's hard to blame Washington for wanting to get the hell out of the way of his own film. The performances have generally received the lion share of the acclaim for the film (and understandably so as Washington and the truly incredible Viola Davis are only the most noticeable of a pitch-perfect cast) but the real star of the film is undoubtedly August Wilson's truly exceptional screenplay, based on his own play – though completed by an uncredited Tony Kushner after Wilson's death in 2005. Washington clearly had no wish to do anything to obscure such transcendental writing and, though, a more audacious, ambitious approach might have resulted in a more cinematic piece of cinema, his cautious, unflashy direction certainly does allow the script to take centre stage.
Washington has referred to Wilson as an American Shakespeare and, amazingly, that's not quite as hyperbolic as it sounds. Along with the sheer musicality of Wilson's words, Fences speaks to the human condition in ways that “issue” films (or stories in general) seldom do: not through politicking, preaching or by making grand statements but by finding universal truths in the simple story of a single, very human man and his family.
The particularities of Fences is very much about being a poor, black person in America in the 1950s but, dig a little under the surface, and you find a character study about a man, living his life trying to do the right thing and often failing spectacularly – a subject that resonates far beyond the very specific time and place in which it is set. Troy is a man of incredible complexity and often great ugliness that threatens to rip any sympathy we may have for him away at a moments notice, but through his struggles (and, yes, triumphs) with his work, with his wife, with his kids, with an often incredibly unfair world around him and, most crucially, with himself, we come to understand him and, perhaps, even see some of ourselves in the many facets of his character. It's a sensational piece of writing, realized by a searing performance by Washington and is surrounded by other, equally vividly drawn characters and wonderful performances – with Viola Davis as Troy's loving but long-suffering wife, Rose, in particular, coming close to stealing the show.
So, yes, Fences never quite manages to escape its central flaw but its virtues are so great that it all but overcomes the fact that it kind of isn't really a film and, in the process, somehow becomes one of the year's most unmissable movies anyway.