Fences is the sort of smart, big hearted, densely written, deeply felt, smartly blocked, stirringly performed theatrical experience that can knock you sideways for the rest of the day. Denzel Washington’s powerful film adaptation of August Wilson’s Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning play is thoughtful, patient, considered, literary. It uses the medium of cinema to recreate the full feeling of having spent and been spent by a consuming, heavy-duty, satisfying evening at the playhouse. Feeling no pressure to open up or embellish upon the text, Washington uses screen staging to bring full expression to Wilson’s writing, letting actors roam the frame, boxed in by their circumstances and holding court for each other as a way to feel heard, even and especially if they’re simply talking past each other. Here is a film with no frivolous exchanges. Every line is imbued with forceful personality and deep meaning. A complicated film, this rich text is contrary to the usual contemporary cycle of instant reaction and shallow analysis. You have to sit with it. You have to live in it. The film creates a fully formed world out of a backyard, entire lives out of conversations.
We sit in and around the home of Troy and Rose, a black couple living paycheck to paycheck in 1950s’ Pittsburgh. They have a mostly happy life, but there are unresolved dramas, neglected compromises, and lingering regrets. He (Washington) is a frustrated garbage man still hoping to get ahead, discrimination be damned. Once a potential Negro league star, he just missed the desegregation of the major leagues. He’s trapped by what could have been, caught in the tug of war between prejudice and opportunity that defined the Northern migration of African Americans looking for better futures in the time between Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Movement. And yet for as much as his circumstances defined his possibilities and his worldview, he has made progress, with a steadfast wife (Viola Davis), a loyal friend (Stephen McKinley Henderson), a troubled brother (Mykelti Williamson), and two sons (one grown (Russell Hornsby), the other (Jovan Adepo) almost there). He can’t quite reconcile his offspring’s ambitions (jazz and football) with his sense of practicality. He worries for them, and though times have changed and are about to continue changing, he can’t quite see it, because they didn’t change in time for him.
Human and humane, Wilson’s worldview makes the story and characters not a sociological specimen or mere vehicle of messaging. No, Fences is stirringly true to life, with characters full of complications. And into these people a perfect cast breathes astonishing life. In long, complicated, dense dialogues and monologues they speak. We hear them gossip, reminisce, plan and dream, and yet underneath we can hear their fears and see their foibles. Fully rounded and shaded figures, they aren’t always easy to get a read on. They reveal flaws and disagreeable aspects of themselves, sometimes through trying to hide their truth, and other times because they’ve run out of obfuscations and must now confront their human failings. There’s a core elemental quality to the film’s specificity, true to Wilson’s sharp evocation of race, class, time, and space, and his keen ear for the ways in which speech can bring people closer and pull them apart, how the sum total of a person’s experience can both expand and contract a person’s possibilities. We can see and hear how some are taken for granted, and others show affection through gruffness, how cruelty can be a kindness and how compassion can flower even in withering relational pains.
What’s most thrilling about Washington’s directorial approach here is how he turns the movie house into a playhouse, importing all the immediacy of live theater while retaining all the power of the wide big screen image. He finds large emotional scenes subtly wrought, moments of deep psychology and powerful exchanges played not to the back rows but perfectly calibrated with delicate electrifying intimacy for the cameras. He, with cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen, builds frames with a proscenium in mind, not stagey but thrillingly contained. The blocking (often a lost art in a world of bland coverage and frivolous CG-assisted swoops) is thought through so deeply, each actor’s placement on the screen, as well as every element of production design, strategically situated to reveal and deepen the emotion of the moment. Watch how a fence becomes metaphor sitting unfinished behind people working to build separations. See how a tree looms above, sturdy growth, or a bat leans ready to strike, full of unspoken potential. Spot movement through a back window, a sight alternating between comfortable domesticity and intentional isolation.
A most intelligently constructed film, Washington has engineered every moment to highlight the power of the play’s text, and the impressively felt, effortlessly deployed performances by himself and his tremendous co-stars. This is a movie of small gestures, quiet revelations, sharp exchanges, quicksand confessions, and dazzling complexity. In its smallness, it grows big, breathtakingly apparent that it’s a major work. More than a surface transposition from theater to cinema, Washington (who surely knows the play inside and out, having starred with Davis in its 2010 Broadway revival) interprets, making it a vital and unshakeable moviegoing experience. He provides space for his talented cast to inhabit their characters, digging deep into their drives and desires, dramas and disagreements, hard pasts and talented possible futures. Through their conversations whole worlds open up. Without visualizing a flashback, Washington need only let the camera linger as he or one of his colleagues holds forth in colorful language, evoking whole strains of conflict and trauma or love and loss in a nod, a fleeting expression, a softly spoken word. It is a rich, dense, and hearty meal in a multiplex otherwise full of empty trifles.