The two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning August Wilson was, I would argue, one of the finest American playwrights of the 20th century. Prior to his death at age 60 in 2005, he had penned 16 plays, including a collection of 10, dubbed "The Pittsburgh Cycle," depicting the African-American experience in Pittsburgh in each decade of the century. His piece set in the 1950s, Fences, won Wilson his first Pulitzer and only career Tony Award in Best Play.
Now, Fences has been adapted to the big screen by leading man and director Denzel Washington, who brought along with him most of his fellow cast from the immensely successful, Tony-winning 2010 revival of the play. This marks the first time a Wilson play has been brought to the silver screen and the result, while imperfect, still packs a solid punch.
Fences focuses on the Maxson family - father and breadwinner Troy (Washington), his wife Rose (Viola Davis) and their son Cory (Jovan Adepo). There's also Troy's brother Gabe (Mykelti Williamson), whose head injury in World War II left him mentally impaired; Bono (Stephen Henderson), Troy's best friend and a constant presence in the Maxson house; and Lyons (Russell Hornsby), Troy's estranged son, whose dreams of becoming a musician don't sit well with his father. That's largely on account of Troy's failing earlier in life to become a professional baseball player, something he believes was on account of the color of his skin but, in actuality, was due to his age. That sentiment creates great conflict in the home when Cory gets scouted by a college football team - something Troy is adamantly against - and blood further boils among the Maxsons when Troy reveals something to Rose that will forever alter their marriage.
Wilson's words are stirring as ever in Fences and the acting is dazzling all-around. Davis, who is largely relegated to the background in the film's first half, walks away with the picture's back half in a powerhouse, enormously empathetic turn. Adepo is a great find and Henderson a real charmer, managing to steal moments with a simple smile. In the demanding and commanding role of Troy, Washington does fine work selling Wilson's brilliant dialogue. His performance does, however, seem more tailored to the stage than screen - where Davis has toned down her delivery a bit to fit the new medium, Washington is still playing the back row of the balcony.
Washington's direction of Fences is a bit on the staid side - considering this, The Great Debaters and Antwone Fisher collectively, he certainly seems a more compelling force in front of, as opposed to behind the camera. The picture recalls recent stage-to-screen adaptations like August: Osage County and Doubt that, without a great filmmaker calling the shots, got all of their mileage out of the screenplay and performances.
That isn't to say Fences is a bad film in the least - it's a must-see for Davis's performance alone. And I would love to see additional Wilson works adapted to the screen, except preferably with another, more daring director at the helm.