Fences is a triumph of acting and for bringing the great August Wilson onto a larger stage. Wilson’s dialog and poetic sense of drama shake the screen and thunder down on you. It’s an absorbing experience of watching working class black characters struggle and the heft of tragedy you’d normally find the works of someone like Arthur Miller. These are the unseen workers that help keep society flowing, but Wilson gives them a chance to say how and why they matter, to express their angers and dreams, to take center stage in the fabric of American storytelling.
For all of these strengths, Fences is still slightly unsatisfying as a piece of cinema. The reason for this is simple, Denzel Washington is perhaps too in awe of the material and merely points a camera at his fellow actors. Fences is a case of shooting the play exactly as it exists onstage with little-to-no opening of the material. This is a hermetically sealed world consistently primarily of a house and backyard where Washington’s sanitation worker can express his stifled dreams and trap his family in his pent-up poison.
Think of the best examples of films made from famous plays, and think of how they interpreted the material for the screen. Washington thinks that his cast and the book are enough, and in many ways they are. But there’s a tedium that sinks in to the shots and it all starts to feel like an episode of Great Performances. An episode of Great Performances that could also double as a master class in acting.
Washington is, of course, one of our great charismatic movie stars. He turns that natural charisma and likability into a man that pops with ingenuity for oratory self-mythologizing. He charms us like he charms his friends and family members before slowly revealing the poison and resentment lurking underneath. This man is not a winking or likable devil by the time the film ends, but a complicated, nasty bastard who can turn on the charm when he finds it expedient. If he wins his third Oscar for his work here, it’ll be a well-earned victory for the ways he sears into Wilson’s juicy monologues while releasing complicated emotional detours in-between his words.
Viola Davis not only holds her own against Washington, no small feat, but emerge as the soul and heart of the piece. She goes about the business of keeping everything in her household operating and moving smoothly, displaying a lived-in grace and bone-deep tiredness that preps you for the bigger moments. Everyone will know the big moment, where she chastises Washington, her face covered in snot and tears, but it’s the quieter moments that linger with you. It’s nearly jarring how exhaustive and honest her portrayal is. Davis is one of our greatest working actresses, and the first black actress to reach Oscar nominations. Fences may just end up being the peak of her career.
While I firmly believe another director, like Barry Jenkins, Steve McQueen, Spike Lee, or Ava DuVernay would have taken a less hagiographic treatment of the material, Washington’s Fences cannot be thrown out. The acting is too great, the torrents of words too poetic and beautiful, too coiled and angry to completely say that Fences is not worth the trip. Maybe Fences will be the vessel to bring August Wilson’s work to the largest audience possible. All of this makes it impossible to outright dismiss, no matter how frustratingly banal or flawed it can be in spots.