Generational Black life can be difficult to explain. What is passed down in Black families is often not material so much as values. Because of the history of opportunity in America, generations of Black families have focused on doing their best to establish character and self-worth in a world that often doesn't recognize such traits in Black people. Such is the case in August Wilson's seminal work, Fences. In what may be the quintessential work on these topics, Wilson presents a Black family striving for their version of the American dream.
Viola, Denzel, August Wilson. Sometimes a film's pedigree is so strong there is no way to fail. Every so often there is a film that has so many winning elements there is simply no way to bring them together and not produce a compelling final product. Its stage predecessor has been wildly successful, with Viola Davis and Denzel Washington even winning Tony Awards for the same roles they play here. There was simply too much in this film’s favor for it not to work on at least some level. But does the film do justice to the source material or does it simply seek to parrot it?
Fences is the story of a Black family in 1950s Pittsburgh. The patriarch, Troy Maxson (played hypnotically by Denzel Washington), is a former baseball player whose life has not unfolded in a fairy tale fashion. He is married to Rose (played dynamically by Viola Davis), who he describes as the one good thing in his life. That life is filled mostly by his job as a garbage man and an assortment of friends and family that come with their own complications. While the arc of the story is fairly simple, the emotions at play are not. The story spans years, as we watch Troy face parenting, letting go of the past, aging and the always uncertain future.
Troy’s responsibilities are myriad—whether it is raising his son with Rose, dealing with a son from a previous relationship, caring for his wounded veteran brother or simply trying to make sure he is treated fairly at work, Troy is constantly faced with challenges. And yet, the central theme of the play is that everyone has challenges and Troy’s manner of lashing out at the world doesn’t necessarily serve those around him. As you watch Troy go from an irascible figure pining for a foregone era to a complete and utter void who drags down the good around him, you start to understand the gravity of the character’s flaws.
And while the strength of the work is undeniable, it is hard not to feel like this is just a screen-printed redux of a great work of art. Very little here is reimagined and the film still feels like a play, for better or for worse. That isn’t to say it can’t still be appreciated, but anything beyond faint praise feels overdone. The world Denzel Washington creates for August Wilson’s words to live in is certainly competent, but it isn’t as impactful as most movie visuals. Besides the rare visual cues like the baseball hanging from the tree in the backyard, there is nothing about the visuals that enhances the story being told.
That said, there is much to recommend here. The acting is superb throughout and Washington and Davis bring the expected heft to roles that would fall flat without it. It would be hard to overstate their brilliance in the film's two biggest roles. Their winding soliloquies and scenery chewing duels propel the film to great emotional heights. The moments where characters stand up to Troy are the films most impactful, and while they would have likely been better served chopping out some of the emotional lulls, their intention was to honor Wilson’s work in its entirety. While I respect that choice, that which works on the stage isn’t always translated by pointing a camera at it and films have different emotional arcs from plays for a reason. But seeing Black life this accurately depicted in film is a rare treat, so in many ways, just the fact that this exists is cause for celebration—even if certain adaptation choices left me wanting.
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