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fences

D: Denzel Washington / 139m

Cast: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Jovan Adepo, Russell Hornsby, Mykelti Williamson, Saniyya Sidney

Movie adaptations of stage productions, especially hugely successful stage productions, don’t come along too often. The two mediums don’t always make for good bedfellows, with one medium’s strengths rarely translating well to the other. For every Casablanca (1943), there’s a Boom! (1968); conversely, for every Hairspray (1988) there’s an Evil Dead: The Musical (2003). But sometimes a stage-to-screen adaptation comes along that has a built-in advantage, a guarantee of quality that ensures it’s going to be as impressive on screen as it was on stage. And Fences is such an adaptation.

Set in 1950’s Pittsburgh, the movie opens with best friends Troy Maxson (Washington) and Jim Bono (Henderson) working as refuse collectors for the city. Troy is facing the possibility of losing his job because he’s challenging the idea that only white men can drive the garbage trucks. But Troy is unperturbed; he reckons he has right on his side, and that’s all he needs. They also talk about a woman that Troy has been spending time with, Alberta. Troy denies there’s anything wrong in what he’s doing, but Bono remains unconvinced. At Troy’s home, Bono and Troy’s wife Rose (Davis), listen to Troy relive a time when he almost died from pneumonia. He tells them he fought the Devil and beat him while he was sick, and he’s ready to take him on again. Rose and Bono laugh at his bluster, and so does Troy, but there’s a distinct feeling that he believes what he’s saying.

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Troy has two sons: one, Lyons (Hornsby), from a previous relationship, and Cory (Adepo), whose mother is Rose. Lyons is in his thirties, an aspiring musician who only visits when he needs money. Cory is a teenager who wants to play football, but when Troy finds out he’s not working after school as agreed, but is going to football practice, Troy rails against it. Convinced that his own career in baseball was cut short by racial prejudice (and not his age at the time), and that the same will happen to his son, Troy refuses to support Cory’s ambitions. Meanwhile, Troy’s younger brother, Gabriel (Williamson), who has a metal plate in his head from serving in World War II and is mentally impaired, talks about knowing St Peter and needing to be ready when the Gates of Heaven will be opened.

Troy and Cory fight over Cory’s ambition to play football, while Rose takes her son’s side. But Troy is adamant, and when he learns that Cory isn’t working at all, he refuses point blank to sign any permission documents. Their animosity over the issue also leads Troy to visit the school and get Cory kicked off the team. With tensions flaring between the two, Troy’s inability to read or write backfires on him when he has to sign papers that leave Gabriel institutionalised. Fate takes further aim at him when Bono confronts him over his now having an affair with Alberta. Urged by Bono to do something about it, Troy has to face up to Rose and tell her the truth – not only about the affair, but that he’s going to be a father again…

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Fences, first performed on stage in 1983, was revived on Broadway in 2010 to major acclaim and won a stack load of awards. It starred Denzel Washington and Viola Davis (who both won Tony’s for their performances), and also featured Henderson, Williamson and Hornsby in the roles they would eventually reprise on screen. With its creator, August Wilson, having passed away in 2005, a movie version rested on one proviso: that the director be an African-American. Step forward Washington, who took a script that August had prepared, and remained faithful to every word of it. There’s a quote from Shakespeare, “the play’s the thing”, and in Washington’s, and Davis’s, and everyone else’s more than capable hands, Fences is a perfect example of that quote.

The problem with a lot of stage to screen adaptations is the dialogue. There’s just too much of it, and while monologues and lengthy speeches are the lifeblood of many a theatrical production, on screen it’s a vastly different matter. Movies are a visual medium, and who wants to watch a bunch of people standing or sitting around talking to each other the whole time? But Fences is, to borrow from the movie’s vernacular, a whole different ball game. Wilson has created such a distinct, precise, rhythmic way of speaking for his characters that it also becomes poetry when listened to long enough. It flows and eddies in ways that ordinary speech never quite manages, but on stage or screen alike, this is dialogue that captivates and mesmerises, and keeps you hanging on every word. Wilson’s dialogue has weight, and a depth that carries such levels of meaning that you could spend hours dissecting each line and find new aspects of it every time. Washington the director knows this, and his fidelity to the words each character speaks is one of the reasons the movie works. They’re simply so well crafted that nobody else could improve on them.

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With the dialogue locked in, the performances follow. The cast know their characters inside out, and it shows. Washington is on superb form as Troy, angry and bitter at the way his life has worked out, and unable to see that the respect he demands from his family is given out of intimidation and fear. Troy isn’t anywhere near likeable for the most part, and Washington isn’t afraid to show just how selfish and controlling he is, daring his wife and sons to challenge him at every turn, a bullish man whose arrogance wears down everyone around him. But if Washington is superb, what can be said about Davis’s performance? Amazingly, she’s on a whole different level. In any two-hander with Washington, it’s Davis that the viewer will be focused on. She gives meaning to Rose’s sacrifice and wounded pride and makes her the strongest character in the whole movie. At one point, Troy asks her to do something that you hope will see Rose turn on him, a final straw for all the pain he’s caused her. But she doesn’t, and her change of heart is both achingly sad and completely understandable all at the same time. Davis is winning lots of awards for her performance, but they’re all justified; she’s simply that good.

The rest of the cast, including newcomers Adepo and Sidney, all add to the acting masterclass that Washington has created, and though some of the staginess of the original is inevitably present, thanks to some careful framing and the editing skills of Hughes Winborne, the movie soon becomes its own thing. Ultimately, Fences is about people – these people – and we learn more and more about them as time goes on, and through the outside influences that have an effect on all of them. Troy talks a lot about duty and responsibility, but these are issues that have affected him, and driven his life for too long, until now he feels trapped. Rose has stood by him, realising that neither will achieve their dreams but counting on their love to help them get by. And Cory is his father’s son, a younger version of Troy who wants his own life and not his father’s, just as Troy tried to emerge from under the shadow of his own father. Emotions run high, battles are fought, and lives are changed. It’s all there in Wilson’s fastidious dialogue, impeccably drawn out and presented by Washington, and all ending on a moment of magical realism that offers a surprisingly positive, and yet apt conclusion to a tale that isn’t afraid to show people at their most vulnerable, and how the notion of family can be both fluid and rigid at the same time.

Rating: 9/10 – a powerhouse of a movie, Fences is emotionally draining for long stretches, and thanks to Washington and Davis, a must-see for anyone even remotely interested in seeing raw, sincere emotions depicted honestly and realistically; naturally the fences of the title are allegorical, but it’s easy to see the boundaries enforced by Troy against the people around him, and though he’s ultimately a tragic figure, one truth the movie espouses is that, within the four walls of his home, he’s not alone.

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