As a director, Denzel Washington is a fine actor. But if you're going to adapt a play by the incandescently terrific author, August Wilson--who demanded, rightly, that Fences be directed by a black person--you might as well get the Tony award-winning star of the play's recent revival to do it. Add to that his co-star, Viola Davis, also reprising her Tony-gleaning performance, and you have a recipe for a film that is more or less guaranteed to succeed. Fortunately, the supporting performances do nothing to take away from Washington and Davis's work, leaving Fences a fiery but safe adaptation of Wilson's first Pulitzer Prize winner.
Troy (Washington) works as a garbage collector for the Pittsburgh rubbish industry, along with his best friend Jim Bono (Stephen Henderson). His second wife, Rose (Davis) is the father of his youngest son, Cory (Jovan Adepo), a seventeen-year-old aspiring football player who has the grades to match. Troy also has a son by his absent first wife, Lyons (Russell Hornsby), an affable musician who comes by on Fridays to mooch off of Troy's paycheck. Troy also has a mentally disabled brother, Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), who has recently begun boarding in an old woman's house, but who receives a stipend from the government Troy collects monthly.
Troy has lead a hard life, a fact that he is none too loathe to remind the people around him about, who respond to his proclamations with varying degrees of sympathy. Rose clearly knows the man she married, and Bono's been Troy's closest friend since they were in prison together nearly twenty years before. But there is a deep divide between Troy and Cory, who wants to put his father's past behind him and become an athlete, a task made difficult by the bruise left behind when Troy was forced out of professional baseball in favor of younger, whiter players. Troy is a bitter man with a chip on his shoulder that is fit to crush both him and his family.
Wilson wasn't the subtlest of playwrights, and Washington certainly is not the subtlest of directors. Working from a screenplay by Wilson himself (who died in 2005), Fences feels like a filmed version of the play. Like a lot of actor-directors--particularly George Clooney, whose formally similar Ides of March was adapted from Beau Willimon's Farragut North--Washington favors closeups and long takes in order to emphasize the performers, all of whom deliver great work here. Ironically, Washington seems to comprehend the least that he is on camera instead of on stage; he gives the kind of Big Performance that Oscar voters love (see Training Day, whose bellowing Alonzo Harris is not unimaginably far from the main character here), but plays Wilson's dialogue to the rafters in a way that edges on grating at times. When Washington reels it in an remembers the value of a boom mic, it becomes apparent that Troy's grandiose exterior belies a hurt, withered soul.
Davis is the real star here, and should be at the top of any Oscar voter's list for Best Supporting Actress (I originally pegged Michelle Williams in Manchester by the Sea, but this just may be Davis's year). It's unfortunate that Davis and her agent believed she'd have better chances of success in the Supporting category, considering her sheer amount of screen time, but it's a reality made concrete by her loss to Meryl Streep in 2011 for The Help (she was the only good thing about that film other than Octavia Spencer, who also won) and the fact that Halle Berry is the only black woman ever to win a Lead Actress Oscar, coincidentally in the same year as Washington for Training Day. Davis is almost always the best part of any project she's in, whether it's this year's Suicide Squad or another shout-filled play adaptation, Doubt, which she rescued from lunacy in under ten minutes of screen time.
In theory, I don't have a big problem with stagey adaptations of plays; some material is best suited to this approach and film is a far more democratic medium than drama for those stories. Washington includes just enough flourishes as a director to upset the otherwise monotonous visual style. He works with Charlotte Bruus Christensen, a Danish cinematographer known for her collaborations with Thomas Vinterberg, who lends the film an autumnal sort of beauty that works in concert with the period-perfect set design. During the film's sparse moments of quiet, Washington demonstrates his knack as a visual filmmaker with an eye for detail and montage that would make Eisenstein proud.
If I have any issues with the film, it's the final fifteen minutes, which feel completely vestigial. I don't want to give anything away--which wouldn't be exactly criminal, as the source material's almost thirty years old--but suffice it to say that the story lacks the strength of its convictions about its protagonist. Troy is a difficult man who has gone a long way to giving his family good lives, while simultaneously destroying them. Suffice it to say that the film lets him off the hook. It felt so awkward and out of place in an otherwise complicated narrative that I checked to see whether Washington appended the epilogue for the film adaptation, but it does indeed occur in the source play. Far be it from me to tell Wilson how to do his job as a storyteller, but he made the wrong call. Washington takes a harder edge against his character throughout the rest of the movie; I'd like to have seen him follow through with it.