So when we talk about about certain forms of media being turned into films, we used to be always be talking about books becoming movies. But now because movie producers are unable to pick up a book, it is usually cartoons from the 1980’s becoming movies. Anyway, the point is that only certain forms of media can be turned into movies. But back in the early days of movies, many plays were turned into movies, which makes sense. Theoretically, you don’t have to change much up to make it work because there’s a basic script already there. But can that sort of medium transfer work in the 21st century? Fences aims to find out.
Troy (Denzel Washington, Training Day) works hard as a bin man to provide for his family despite having a tough upbringing. However he is perhaps repeating some of the mistakes that his parents made with him, as he is very tough on his son Cory (Jovan Adepo, The Leftovers) and his dreams to play football and go to college.
So as I made it clear in the opening paragraph, Fences is an adaptation of the play of the same name, and that means pretty much everything about this film is going to rely on the actors. Plays are often called an actor’s medium, it’s why so many big names who could have a much easier time doing movies end up going to tread the boards at some point. And because Denzel Washington, who also directs the movie, hasn’t changed much, it’s certainly the case here. Every actor gets long monologues where they really get to show off their abilities, and every line is meant to be meaningful and maybe a little bit unrealistic because it’s meant to be projected over a 300 seat theatre. Your enjoyment of the film will come down to whether you can past this sort of film and sort of treat it as a middle ground between a film and play, sort of like those live musicals on NBC but more about the after effects of racial oppression.
But about those performances which the film relies on, they are excellent. You probably saw that Viola Davis (The Help) won a lot of awards for her role, which you probably agreed with her on the strength of her previous work. She was even great in Suicide Squad, which testament to her talent. And for a while while as plays Troy’s wife Rose, you’ll wonder why as she isn’t given much to do. But as that final third comes, you realise she has been waiting for moment to shine and she takes it. She is truly stunning in the final moments and she swings from anger, grief and acceptance, yet all grounded in the character that we all found out about in the first two thirds.
But it’s nice to talk about Viola Davis when she gets something to do because most of the film is completely dominated by Denzel Washington’s character. Now of course he gets the most screen time, the story is about him, the chip on his shoulder and the fact he slowly becomes the man he hates the most. And his performance is truly great, one of the best he’s done in years. It’s very obvious he’s enthused by the material he’s been given and he’s giving it his all. It’s just, too much. He gets monologue after monologue, he’s louder than every over character and you just get sick of him. I get that’s the point, but it ends up being the sort of thing that makes you want to turn the film off rather than more engaged in the character.
The other big issue that stops Fences from being as good as it could be is the use of time jumps. It’s natural for films to have to move ahead in time, but you have to do something to show us cinema-goers when we are. Maybe a bit of make up to make the characters look a bit older, a few shots to show life progressing, even something as clichéd as showing the weather is different to show time has passed. Simple stuff. Washington though forgets all about this and when a new scene happens, the only time we figure out we’re a few months on is some expository dialogue that happens way too late. It’s just poor structure that forgets one of the most crucial elements of storytelling, the when.
But I do really like Fences because of the story it tells, which is really dark and effective. The transformation of Troy is very subtle and is so incredibly well done. You can see the fact he’s not a great human being from the start by the way he treats his son, though you can also see he has a logical reason. Yet you can see him descend into a much worse person through some actions which may make sense to him, but seem pretty horrific for us who are looking from the outside. The entire film is a superb character portrait of him.
Fences has a lot of problems, some of which stem from the fact Denzel Washington loves the project too much. One, because he seems to refuse to use the medium of film to enhance the source material and change a few things around and other because he wants to put himself front and centre and not change a bit of the script so we don’t get completely tired of his character because of the endless monologues. He’s lucky that the source material is incredibly good and that he’s assembled a fantastic cast to act that material because it makes sure this movie is still well worth watching even with the issues it has.