Fences; Brute literary force and the failed American dream.

Denzel Washington quotes playwright August Wilson among giants of American literature as he went up to snag his award for best actor at the Screen Actors Guild awards. As a lover of literature, I was naturally excited when I found out that Denzel Washington and Viola Davis had performed the real play before they adapted the source material to the big screen. The result of this rare birth of stage-to-film is a scaldingly tense drama, brutally underscored by the harshness of poverty and those left behind by the American Dream. Fences, in some ways, is a foil to Arthur Miller’s All My Sons which is about the failure of the American Dream for the ones who have achieved it. I haven’t seen the actual play but I think it’s very close to the original. Fences retains all of the character-to-character back and forths, monologues are lengthy and verbose, and it’s less of a cinematic experience and more a film sticking to its stage roots. I cannot and will never relent to anyone who says Fences (or any other play-to-film adaptation) is ‘over-acted’, ‘too talky’ and ‘too forced and unbelievable’. You can’t pick at a film for trying to adapt a play in the best possible way it can…which is to stick to its source. As far as I’m concerned (and I hope a majority of people who love plays and literature would agree), I’m glad we get films, rare as they may be, that bring the lyricism and beauty of a play to the big screen with minimal changes to its original style and design. Films like that don’t have to pander to mainstream cinema. If it did, then that would be the real tragedy.

Directed by Denzel Washington himself, Fences can be mistaken for a pretty bland looking rookie attempt at directing. But I defend the guy. I appreciate how the ‘stage’ look is preserved as Denzel finds spots where we can observe the interactions between characters in a very straightforward way. The straight-laced unassuming style places less emphasis on the director and cinematographer and spotlights the action rightly on the actors, who are at the heart of August Wilson’s ferocious spectacle and satire. Denzel and crew definitely know when not to mess with uneccessary abstractions and style and sometimes as he himself has stated, the best way is to simply ‘place a camera somewhere and just film it.’ Denzel is brilliant in his long and loud monologues that characterize everything about his character; Even ramblings like ‘death ain’t nothin’ but a fastball on the outside corner’ and the subsequent ‘Ain’t nothing wrong with talking about death. That’s part of life. Everybody gonna die. You gonna die, I’m gonna die. Bono’s gonna die. Hell, we all gonna die.” is testament to Troy’s realist outlook. The mix of joviality and resignation in his diction is perfectly intertwined in Denzel’s performance, giving us a character who withers away in the face of change, making light of his regrets in the only way he knows to deflect his pain.

Image result for fences movie

But Fences is nothing without Viola Davis. Viola’s Rose makes the other half of the family and her supportive and motherly role is heart-warming at first and heart-breaking as the film progresses. Like a shadow behind her husband, Rose breaks out of her submissive image, her motherly figure belies an ocean of lost dreams and sacrifice. Viola Davis is heartbreakingly moving. There is a scene,among many great scenes of hers in the film, where she sends shockwaves through your body and makes your hair stand. It’s a stand-out moment in an already fantastic movie; A tender and true moment that speaks to everyone in the audience.

Ultimately, Fences is not simply a well-acted piece of work. Viola Davis and Denzel Washington duo dynamic is shattering and transcendant; Just as there are no barriers between the stage and its audience, their sheer acting force makes it easy to forget that we watch them through a screen. But let’s get real. August Wilson’s play is essentially a realist kind of play. It’s a simple American story about simple American households and their struggles in this not-so-simple world. Wilson’s characters are mainly Black and he makes no bones about his subject matter here. From the vernacular to the constant references to racial injustice, racism and inequality, Fences is very much a universal story with a personal tone. But moving bey0nd the said themes, it is a healing and restorative experience for all the hustlers out there. For even as the world is raining down upon us with the winds of unjust fate, pre-destined afflictions, tragedy, heartbreak and ‘death’ waiting on the other side of your fence, Fences is a life-affirming reminder that there is still life to be found and joy to be had.

Rating: 9.4/10 I felt like I could have said more, but I don’t want to turn this into a literary analysis. That would have completely spoiled the whole movie and I definitely do not want that. Everyone, please make a trip down to your local cinema and catch this.

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8 Comments Add yours

  1. Matt says:

    Well, I haven’t seen Fences yet but will have to before Oscar night. I do think film adaptations should be able to adapt to the medium. Film is clearly differently from the stage so what works for one may not work for the other. So I can understand some of the criticisms without having seen the movie yet. I’m hoping you’re right though, that Fences works great as a film because I really want to love it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. jwforeva says:

      True, film is a medium like any other and adaptations that play out well through adapting deserves its own merit. But I do think preserving the integrity and style of plays is essential for the understanding and appreciation. The dramatized, lyrical and lengthy dialogue contains so much depth (metaphors,symbolism,tone, non sequiturs, irony etc) that is crucial to the appreciation of its characters and the nature of the play itself.

      Like

  2. I STILL need to see this one, and I’ve really been meaning to due to all the positive reviews! I want to see it just for that Viola Davis clip they played at the globes, and will likely play at the Oscars. Girlfriend is totally taking home the Oscar, no? Great review!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. jwforeva says:

      Thanks buddy! I really hope you catch it, I have a feeling it might make your top 10 :O It already made mine! As a lover of the arts and lit, I was so invested throughout and came out feeling like this was a really well written play. Oh yeah that was crazy good…that snot though 😂 Yes she has too! But it’s weird because she’s a definite lead, and she gave IMO the best lead performance of the year.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yeah, I figured she’d be considered lead??? The Oscars are weird. Maybe they put her in supporting, because they know she’ll 100% win…and didn’t want to put her against Stone, because it seems they’re dying to give Stone the award. *eyeroll*

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I agree that keeping this film as close to its stage roots as possible was a wise decision on Washington’s part. He’s hardly a rookie director, by the way, having directed Antwone Fisher and The Great Debaters before this. The acting is phenomenal. The fact Washington and Davis make these long diatribes feel natural is astounding. I’m pulling hard for both of them on Oscar night. Great review.

    Like

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