Someone give Viola Davis an Oscar right now. Right now. Don’t even wait until February.
The actress, made famous by her role as Annalise Keating on “How to Get Away With Murder,” is the shining light of the film adaptation of “Fences.” The power and grit of her performance as Rose, a 1950s Pittsburgh housewife, is unmatched, not only in the film itself, but in this entire awards season. She’s up for best supporting actress at the Golden Globes and likely will be for the Oscars as well. I really can’t say enough about her performance. She’s perfect. We do not deserve Viola Davis.
Denzel Washington (“The Magnificent Seven”), who also directed the film, has a hard time keeping up with Davis. He plays Troy Maxom, Rose’s husband and the central figure in the film. He’s also in a uniquely difficult position. “Fences” first premiered as a play with the same name by August Wilson in which Davis and Washington previously starred. The most iconic portrayal of Troy is that by James Earl Jones (famous for his roles as Darth Vader and Michigan hype video narrator) in the original production of the play. Jones won a Tony for the role and set the bar impossibly high — at least too high for Washington to clear.
The plot of the film follows Troy as he tries to reconcile his past failures and deal with his son’s desire to play college football (played by Jovan Adepo of “The Leftovers”). Troy was once a great baseball player, but never made it to the major leagues, a failure he blames on his race. He worries the same will happen to his son if he tries to make it to the NFL, so Troy pushes him away from sports. The tension and conflict between the two men is underdeveloped and largely unexplored, which is disappointing, as for the majority of the film it is the central source of conflict.
But, “Fences” is stuck in its theatrical roots. Almost all of the action takes place in and around the Maxom family house. For an almost two and a half hour movie, visually, it’s boring. Most the time, the characters appear in medium or long shot, the type of view one would have of an actor on the stage. The actors, most noticeably Washington, feel like they’re giving a performance for the person in the back row who might not be able to see or hear—something that’s unnecessary in a film. It feels, ultimately, like you’re watching a recording of a play, instead of a film.
As a play, it works. As a movie, it’s disappointing in its unwillingness to take advantage of its medium. There’s a reason Denzel Washington didn’t build his career on his directorial abilities. There are moments in “Fences” of real visual beauty, but many of the shots are lazy — tracking shots lose their subjects, the camera switches from stable to handheld in jarring transitions. The editorial and cinematic seams are on full display.
The story Washington has to work with is incredibly rich. August Wilson is a poet of the everyday, spinning vernacular into lyrical dialogue. He weaves the lives of the Maxom family together with exquisite intricacy. The transition from stage to screen seems to be one of the most difficult to make (unless you’re Shakespeare, I guess). “August: Osage County” is a great example of a work that excelled as a play and fell flat as a film. Unlike literary adaptations, with plays there is already a visual record of the work, so films adapted from plays tend to feel more like remakes than adaptations. “Fences” is the perfect example of a stage to screen adaptation that falls victim to its transition. Unfortunately, “Fences” cannot escape its origins.