Fences falls in the middle of August Wilson’s 10-play history cycle. It is set at a turning point of possibilities still held back by the weight of history. Wilson also wrote the screen adaptation, directed and starring Denzel Washington (The Magnificent Seven) in this presentation. That “from the source” base colors the film. It is much more play-like than movie. The language, gorgeous but not naturalistic. The scenes, contained rather than flowing into one another. It brings a heightened sense to everything but also holds back your commitment to the story because the style is more presentational instead of inviting. Eventually you fall into the rhythm of it and it serves the story, but it is a little jarring as the tale spins up.
There is no doubt this is Washington’s story, whether on screen or off. It is his character being blown by the winds of change and struggling to do right and to let go of the past. But Washington is surrounded by subtle performances in the bombast of his delivery that are incredibly compelling. Viola Davis (Suicide Squad), in particular, wins you over even when her decisions feel baffling. Russell Hornsby (Grimm) and Jovan Adepo (The Leftovers) as his sons are tightly controlled surfaces with depths that could drown you. The sum total of this story is one deservedly winning lots of attention and awards.
Fences is a challenging tale, but not without its positive aspects. There are no cruel intentions, though there are certainly cruel actions in the story. It is positive in a way that life is positive, with a mix of realities and aspects from which you can move forward. Washington directs the film with confidence, if not entirely with the eye he needed to keep it paced and the time frames clear. But the performances more than make up for any lack.
It was, however, a tough one to watch on this Inauguration Day and not consider the history being presented as well as the powerful story. The Pittsburgh of Fences is only 50-ish years ago… a reminder of how far we’ve come and yet still need to go. Much of Fences still feels familiar. Part of that familiarity is that people haven’t changed, even as the world has. But part of it is knowing how close we are to slipping back into that world, even if the parameters and those affected may change. I don’t think Wilson would have argued with that interpretation, even when it was written in the mid-80s.
Make time for this story for the performances, if not the message. The latter is an aspect of context, while the core tale of humanity is what has kept this story alive through the decades.