There are only a handful of stage to screen adaptations that one could say truly fall within the realm of truly great adaptations, among them being such films as Amadeus, The Miracle Worker, Inherit the Wind, The Odd Couple, On Golden Pond and a few others including now this film, Fences, an adaptation of August Wilson's 1983 play and 1987 Pulitzer Prize winner for Drama.
Fences is an actor's film, though it's also the kind of film that actors dream of because of Wilson's culturally in tune, remarkably fluid language that is precise, pointed and contains such a rhythm that one can practically sway with its every nuance. Denzel Washington, who both directs the film and stars as Troy, guides one of the year's most stunning ensembles into extraordinary performances and serves up a performance himself that simply must be among one of the best self-directed performances in recent memory.
August Wilson himself has adapted the stage version of Fences for the big screen, largely maintaining the story's stage structure yet, when necessary, adapting familiar scenes in ways that make sense cinematically.
I suppose it helps that much of the story takes place in an urban Pittsburgh backyard, the kind of backyard that serves as both source of provide and personal kingdom for those working class souls who've toiled away for years to obtain one. Troy is one of these souls, a city sanitation worker and a man of seemingly unfulfilled potential whose reality has never come close to living into that potential. Troy was originally played on the Broadway stage by James Earl Jones as a menacing sort of man, domineeering and terrifying. Washington, who captured a Tony Award for Best Actor in a Play in 2010 for his portrayal of Troy, brings something different to the table yet something, perhaps, that's even more terrifying - a kind of charismatic swagger that makes Troy no less scary yet infinitely more seductive. He lives as a family man, married nearly 20 years to Rose (Viola Davis) and father to one son at home who rightfully fears him, Cory (Jovan Adepo), and one adult son (Russell Hornsby) whose status as a struggling musician is a source of constant tension within the walls of the family home.
If you've ever lived in the kind of home where you watched every word and every gesture and every action afraid that it would set off the family's ticking timebomb, then you'll likely find yourself recognizing the eggshell world in which Troy believes himself to be king and intimidates anyone who disagrees. He spends his day riding on the back of the truck alongside lifelong friend Bono (Stephen Henderson, masterfully recreating the role he played on Broadway) and lording himself over Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), his younger brother who returned from the war with brain damage and an air of childlike wonder that Troy finds both endearing and irritating.
There isn't a weak performance in the film. Washington's masterful performance may, in fact, be outshined by Viola Davis's nothing short of extraordinary turn as Rose. Davis, who also captured a Tony Award alongside Washington for the 2010 revival, gives the kind of performance that makes you want to just go ahead and hand her over an Oscar Award. I mean, seriously, she's fierce and brave and vulnerable and aching and raw and just captures every little nuance contained within Rose. Whether Davis captures the Oscar or not, her performance here is one of the finest performances by an actor or actress in recent years.
Henderson's Bono is an emotional balance to Troy, a guy with a similar past yet more settled and having learned from it. Jovan Adepo and Russell Hornsby both shine as the two sons who seek Troy's approval yet are never likely to receive it, while Mykelti Williamson tackles the challenging role of Gabriel, whose disability could easily be played as a caricature, and turns him into a sacred giant of sorts.
There will be those poor souls who will feel that Fences is a tad too stagey. Don't listen to them. Fences is exactly what it needs to be, an intimate and frequently jarringly uncomfortable drama brought masterfully to life by an ensemble cast that understands August Wilson's words and gives them life in a simply extraordinary way. Easily one of 2016's best films, Fences should find itself with a slew of awards come awards season and will unquestionably be remembered as yet the latest of the truly great stage to film adaptations.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic