When a great actor directs himself in a role he recently won a Tony for—and casts as his leading lady his Broadway co-star, who also won a Tony—to call the resulting film “stagey” is both a critique and a compliment. Denzel Washington’s Fences, adapted from the (Tony- and Pulitzer-winning!) play by August Wilson, is as stagey as movies come. Actors deliver long speeches in unbroken takes, a rhythm of speech we’re not used to seeing presented in cinematic form. (Half a century ago, when Hollywood films were regularly adapted from successful stage plays, this declamatory style was easier to accept as convention.) Symbolic motifs recur with a regularity that might be poetic in a live performance but that can come off as clumsily obvious in a would-be realistic screen setting. A few sets—mainly just one, a narrow Pittsburgh backyard—are all that’s needed to house two hours and 19 minutes’ worth of multigenerational familial and social drama. (The 1983 play ran more than three hours; Wilson’s text was reportedly trimmed for the screen by the playwright Tony Kushner, who gets a credit as co-producer rather than screenwriter—perhaps out of respect for Wilson, who died in 2005.)
So that’s the critique: Washington’s Fences feels static and claustrophobic in the way filmed plays sometimes can, and it requires a high level of commitment from its audience, both in terms of willing disbelief-suspension and sheer theater-sitting stamina. But here comes the compliment: Thanks largely to the blazing brilliance of Washington and Viola Davis in the lead roles—though just about every supporting player is perfect too—Fences lavishly pays off that investment of time and attention. Watching it is like getting a front-row seat to the beautifully mounted revival of a classic work of American drama, starring two stars who know and understand that text as well as any actors in the world. Sure, you’re a little closer up than you might have chosen to sit—but still, front row!
Washington plays Troy Maxson, a middle-aged trash collector who wants to become the first black driver of a city sanitation truck—a modest but meaningful goal that, if achieved, would be one of the few unambiguous success stories in Troy’s hard-lived life. After running away from his own violent father as a young teenager, he did time in jail for petty crimes, then excelled just enough as a Negro League baseball player to get up his hopes about integrating the major leagues. By the time of the play’s 1950s setting, that feat has been accomplished by Jackie Robinson. When Troy’s devoted work buddy Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson, also reprising his role from the 2010 production) observes that a talented ballplayer of Troy’s generation was simply born too early, Troy gives us an early glimpse at the bitterness behind his bluster, snapping, “There ought never have been no time called too early!”
Longtime veterans of the town garbage circuit, Troy and Bono spend their downtime drinking gin in the backyard while Troy spins tall tales about narrow getaways and great games of yore. Listening from the kitchen and occasionally joining them for a laugh is Rose (Davis), Troy’s wife of 18 years, who seems to enjoy her husband’s exaggerated boasts even as she dryly skewers them.
Our introduction to these characters is leisurely and relatively untroubled, so that by the time the complications of the second act kick in, the rhythms of the Maxson house have taken on a falsely soothing familiarity—in these early scenes, Washington and Davis seem as believable a comfortable long-term couple as any onscreen pair in recent memory. Troy and Rose have one son together, a high-school football star (Jovan Adepo) whose potential for an athletic scholarship fans his father’s resentment. Troy also has a grown son from an earlier relationship (Russell Hornsby), a semibroke musician who’s always dropping by to borrow a ten-spot. And Troy’s brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), reduced to a childlike state of dependence after a war injury, has recently moved from Troy and Rose’s house into an apartment nearby. That’s a wide circle of relations for whom Troy and Rose are emotionally responsible. But the tough emotional work, along with all the cooking and cleaning, falls entirely onto Rose, of course—a gendered division of labor whose daily, grinding injustice is made manifest in every gesture of Davis’s performance.
Davis’s Rose is a woman who’s willing to put up with a lot to keep her family together but whose personal boundaries are clearly drawn and ferociously protected. When Troy crosses over those boundaries, Davis gets the chance to haul off with the kind of let-me-give-it-to-you-straight-buddy speech every actress must dream of delivering onstage, but very few can pull off on film—especially in sustained close-up, eyes and nose running freely, pretenses stripped away but dignity intact. Both Washington and Davis are in top form as actors, able to convey the rich, poetic density of Wilson’s dialogue as well as the years of unspoken back story that make those flights of stylized language ring true. Washington, whose late period has been all about rejecting his nice-guy early image, plays one of the least nice and yet hardest-to-hate characters he ever has, an inwardly weak man for whom we feel enormous empathy even as we watch him treat his loved ones like his own private property. But it’s Davis who steals the film as her character gradually takes over the story, becoming in essence the protagonist by the time the final act rolls around.
Unfortunately Washington’s direction (this is his third film as a director, after Antwone Fisher and The Great Debaters) tends to signpost the script’s dramatic beats too anxiously in a way that can make the film feel emotionally as well as physically airless. He often cuts away to close-up reaction shots, for example, when a more casual camera placement would have allowed the audience to notice whatever or whoever we needed to in our own time. Fences functions as a faithful—sometimes doggedly faithful—record of a remarkable ensemble performance of one of the great works of American drama. Granted, it’s never exactly a great movie, but given the chance to see actors of this caliber tear into material this rich, you would be foolish to pass up the chance.
Read more Slate coverage of the Oscar race.