Fences is a film that many will have to prepare themselves for. Know what you’re getting into before you see this movie. Expect a dialogue reliant screenplay and some in-depth character studies. August Wilson adapted the screenplay from his own stage play of the same name, so naturally there is a significant amount of monologuing and theatrical dialogue. Fences is also an extremely intimate film, with a large focus on not only its characters but their relationships and how they must work to heal them. If one understands the blink-and-you-miss-something nature of this film before seeing it, then they’ll most likely enjoy it for what it is. Those with weaker attention spans or a thirst for more than just emotional tension, however, will be disappointed.
Of course a lot of people will be turned off by the way this film heavily depends on its dialogue, just like they were turned off by Steve Jobs and Lincoln, but many people will be able to connect with the artistic style of the film as well. Those interested in the theater, those hoping to study acting, even readers who deeply appreciate excellent writing. I haven’t seen the stage production of Fences myself, but I can tell how much was put into bringing it to the big screen, even by the playwright himself. There’s a pretty big difference between theater and cinema, not just in the medium, but in the performances and the way the show immerses you. In a play, line delivery and actions are often exaggerated to get the point across because the actor doesn’t have a camera two feet away from his face. Having not seen the play, I can still say that there’s most likely a significant difference between the two productions because three film plays out like a film.
I suppose some people may have preferred this movie be nothing but a taping of the stage play on location with big name actors, but I’m really glad it wasn’t. The significant difference between stage and screen exists because each medium works for itself and only for itself. I enjoy seeing live entertainment from time to time, but if all films were just tapings of plays, the art form wouldn’t be nearly as appealing to me. It goes both ways, though, because if stage productions played out like cinema it would go against the whole definition of a play. That’s not to say Fences isn’t theatrical in its own way, though. Like I stated in my opening paragraph, not everybody will enjoy the film because certain aspects are exaggerated and much of it is confined to one location. It started out as a play, so while it’s not a direct adaptation, it’s definitely an homage of sorts to the theater.
The cast works wonders for this script for a few reasons. Number one is their compatibility with the dialogue. Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, as well as the actors who play various family members, all perform in a way that fits the script. Once again, the stage play shines through very much in this adaptation, and much of that is due to the top-notch acting. At times I prefer more subdued and held back performances. It really worked in last year’s Spotlight and in this year’s Sully because it made the performances more realistic, but for this type of movie I want grander performances. Every other scene is the type of scene they would play at the Oscars to announce the nominees, and I would typically find that annoying and melodramatic, but for Fences it’s perfect.
The second reason the acting is so impactful is because despite the fact that I was watching Denzel Washington and Viola Davis for two hours, I never saw them as actors. They become their characters so flawlessly that rather than seeing these famous Hollywood actors, I felt like I was watching a real family dealing with real problems, and that created an incredibly rich emotional experience for me. The performances were powerful and heartbreaking, and that’s the biggest reason this was such an impactful movie.
An element of the film that is, in fact, held back is the direction. Denzel Washington helmed this film with the most precise attention to building a world and shaping that world’s atmosphere. The visuals and the design of the film aren’t something you take note of at first because they don’t jump out at you. You expect the movie to look and feel the way it does going into it, so the directing and the general style all blends into the background. The tone of Fences feels just how you expect it to, so while it doesn’t seem special at first, it knows its place and does its job. It works right along with the screenplay to create a believable background. The world feels real and lived in. The characters aren’t introduced as blank slates, but rather as real people who have histories, and it’s those histories that eventually drive the plot. This film does a fantastic job with effective characterization and seamless exposition. We don’t have to get to know any of the characters because we already know them in a sense.
— Camden McDonald