Fences…Meh?

This is going to sound awfully petty, or snobbish, but I finally got around to watching Fences, the filmed adaptation of the August Wilson play from 2016. Directed by and starring Denzel Washington, it essentially adapts the 2010 Broadway revival in which both he and Viola Davis starred. Most of the rest of the cast is the same, as well, including Mykelti Williamson as Gabriel. Viola Davis’ Academy Award-winning performance as Rose notwithstanding, the film is not particularly good. It is quite slow, suffers from bad direction, and has the same flaw the 2010 revival did: Denzel Washington is just NOT a good fit for Troy Maxson.

When I learned back in 2010 that there would be a revival of Fences, one of Wilson’s best plays (though I am more partial to The Piano Lesson) I was excited, but when I learned that Washington was starring, I was less interested. Washington is a FINE actor, in every sense of the word, and he has given us so many indelible performances in his career. But…he is no Troy Maxson. Troy is described as

“a large man with thick, heavy hands; it is this largeness that he strives to fill out and make an accommodation with. Together with his blackness, his largeness informs his sensibilities and the choices he has made in his life.”

Denzel Washington is many things, but “large” is not one of them. This physical prowess is really crucial to the character of Troy, as he literally and figuratively towers over everyone in his life, from his wife to his sons to his best friend. (For comparison, the original Troy when the play first premiered in 1985 was James Earl Jones. Not only is Jones large in the physical sense, but that VOICE is itself enormous, and fills up every space around him.) As a result of this physical mismatch between actor and character, Washington seems to “play” big. And while there is an element of performativity to Troy’s physical being, the character more uses his body as a means to push others away and prevent them from being closer to him, because he is so intimidating. The kind of intimidation we see, instead, from Troy is the steely-eyed, “I guarantee it” Denzel, rather than someone who just needs to bully people out of the way or tower over them. And, while impressive, that conveys a very different character than the one presented in the text.

I found the direction of the film to be rather plodding, as well. Filming a script that takes place in one location–the Maxson’s back yard–is a challenge, and so Washington places action in different areas (the garbage truck, the Maxson’s bedroom, etc) to provide more dynamic filming, but that has the added effect of dragging the film out, as establishing shots and other work needs to be done to set the scenes. Ordinarily, this wouldn’t be a problem, but this also cuts conversations in half, moves around interactions, etc, and generally bogs down the progress of the story. One scene that stands out as a particularly egregious example of this sees Troy visiting Gabriel in the hospital, in between conversations he has with Rose in Scene 2.2. In the play, the conversation between Rose and Troy about whether he will come home that night, how he signed Gabriel into the hospital, and the phone call which interrupts them to tell Troy that Alberta died while having his baby all takes place in this one continuous scene. In the film, this is broken up into several scenes: Rose meeting Troy at work, Troy in the hospital feeding Gabriel, the phone call waking up Troy and Rose late at night.

Beyond dragging this fairly short scene out over multiple scenes, the insert with Troy and Gabriel seems to be an attempt to rehabilitate this component of Troy’s character. We see Troy tenderly feeding Gabriel, who is wearing a bib (much like the baby Troy is about to have himself), and it clearly communicates that his committing his own brother to the hospital wasn’t a cynical ploy to get part of his army disability, but instead a decision he may wrestle with. That is an expansion of the text that isn’t necessary and is far too manipulative in terms of the audience’s sympathies.

While I think Williamson is great casting as Gabriel–both because he is a good actor and because Gabe is so reminiscent of Williamson’s iconic role as Bubba in Forrest Gump–the film’s (and possibly the 2010 revival, I’m honestly unsure) presentation of Gabriel is more tragic than the text suggests to me. I’ve always read Gabriel as a developmentally interrupted character, a man who suffered a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) in World War II as a young man, but who appears to more or less be independent and capable of living on his own, which is what makes Troy’s decision to commit Gabriel–something he refuses to do early in the play–a cynical, somewhat cruel thing to do. However, Williamson plays Gabriel as much more disabled, needing to be fed with a spoon at times, and at others, wandering around in circles when he gets excited. This has the effect of making the hospital committal seem much more necessary.

I am sure there is more about the film I could criticize, but truly, it’s not a “bad” movie. The performances are good, the music is nice, the dialogue is of course the great mixture of AAVE and storytelling that August Wilson does so well, and Rose is a really fascinating character. And yet…the film left me disappointed. Instead of Fences, I might recommend the TV movie adaptation of The Piano Lesson, starring Charles S. Dutton, Alfre Woodard, and Courtney B. Vance, from 1995. Now there’s an adaptation that works.

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