Here’s what I learned while watching Fences: Denzel Washington is a great actor, and this is one of this greatest performances, but Denzel Washington is not a great director.
August Wilson’s play was years in the making. He wrote the screenplay well over a decade ago (he died in 2005) and insisted that it be directed by a black director. Finally Washington got it made, and it is a showcase of great acting and some brutally powerful dialogue. But Washington’s ham-fisted direction, along with an ending that defies belief (I’ve never read or seen the play, so I don’t know if that was Wilson’s idea) hamper what could have been a great film, but it merely a good one.
Washington plays Troy Maxson, a garbageman in Pittsburgh in the late ’50s. He is bitter, because he was a great baseball player but never got a chance at the Majors (he says that Jackie Robinson couldn’t have even made some of the teams he played on). He has a devoted but weary wife (Viola Davis) and a teenage son (Jovan Adepo), who wants to play college football, but Washington doesn’t trust that football will do right by him (to show how different times were then from now, when a college scholarship for an inner city black youth is like a golden ticket). He also has a son from a previous marriage (Russell Hornsby) who is a musician, which Washington doesn’t approve of.
Washington mostly sits in his backyard, drinking gin and telling tall tales with his friend and co-worker (Stephen McKinley Henderson). He talks about wrestling with Death for three days and three nights. He has also been building a fence for ages. This is the central metaphor of the play and film, signifying the title. Henderson tells him at one point, “Fences can keep people out, or they can keep people in.”
There are some highly-charged moments in the play, dealing with circumstances I don’t wish to spoil, since I didn’t know they were coming. But Washington makes no real attempt to “break open” the play, including only a few minor scenes that are not set in his house or yard. I’m not a person who believes a film based on a play has to be broken out, but Fences seems claustrophobic. Of course, maybe this was Washington’s intention. I’m sure it was not his intention to have strangely framed scenes, with characters wandering off a distance before cutting to a close two shot of them, or characters at the edge of a frame for no particular reason. There is also some instances of weather to heighten dramatic effect, something I find to be lazy.
But as for Washington’s performance, wow! This cements his status as one of the great American actors, ever. He’s made some bad movies, sure, and even possibly some bad performances, but this character is fully realized, and every emotion is etched on his face. He’s a voluble character, but it’s his few quiet moments that ring with me. Davis is no less his match, and surely will win the Best Supporting Actress Oscar. She has a couple of big scenes, letting Washington know where their relationship stands.
The screenplay has some very funny dialogue, too, but a few stagey scenes that don’t work, such as Washington telling his best friend and son how he left home at the age of fourteen. Surely that would have come up before in their relationships, but it needed to laid out as exposition for what would come next. It’s a bit clumsy,
Fences is a crowd-pleaser, and it is great to see a film about the black experience in America by a black director with a black cast. As the film is full of baseball metaphors, Fences is a clean single, but not a home run.