Fences, set in Philadelphia in the 1950s, stars Denzel Washington and Viola Davis. It follows the story of Troy Maxson, chronicling his long-held resentment at being too old to join major league baseball when they began admitting players of color, the effects of a strained and now non-existent relationship with his father, the racial oppression he has and knows he will have to continue to endure, and how all of these pieces of him feed the complexity of his current relationships–particularly with his son, wife, and brother.
Fences tells an acutely poignant story honestly and beautifully with the careful sort of balance that pushes back against simplistic, black and white moral judgements. The story is able to show the audience that all of the characters are both doing their best and acting selfishly, without subscribing the common misconception that these behaviors are contradictory.
At times, the film can be hard on its characters, not shying from their faults, or from exposing characters’ uglier edges. And this is what makes the story feel authentic.
Throughout the entire film, most if not all subjects are addressed with sensitivity to each character’s’ perspective and position; in this film, as often in life, no one person is completely to blame for rifts and completely responsible for reconciliations. In particular, the treatment of the subject of infidelity is handled well. While not all sides of the story get to be told, the sides that are told, and done so with a humanizing touch.
However, Fences is careful to not play favorites. At times, the film can be hard on its characters, not shying from their faults, or from exposing characters’ uglier edges. And this is what makes the story feel authentic.
However, some of that authenticity may be hampered by interruptions in the audience’s suspicion of disbelief. Fences is based on the play of the same name by August Wilson…and the audience can feel it. I once attended a discussion with actor/ director/ writer/ playwright, Josh Radnor. He told us what someone told him when he asked how you know if the script you are writing is a film or a play: your characters won’t shut up. This rang true in Fences and was one of the key indications that this was originally a play (even for audience members who did not know this film was based on a play when they walked into the theatre). There are a few glaring indications of a play turned film: The characters talk in long, theatrical, well-written sentences and do not stop doing it. Scenes end way after you think they will. The setting rarely changes. The acting can err on the side of theatrical. There are few sequences that you could only have captured a film.
Plays cannot (and should not) do all the things a film can, and vice versa. It is not enough to record a play and call it a film.
The question is whether this is a critique or mere characteristic of the film. If you are the sort of film lover who is precious about the singularity of the medium, you might incline to select the former description. This line of argument might go as follows: film is a medium distinct from other expressive modes like novels, plays, television. Each medium is meritorious in its own right but for different reasons. Plays cannot (and should not) do all the things a film can, and vice versa. It is not enough to record a play and call it a film. It is not enough to perform a film live and call it a play.
When we see a play, we naturally do not expect there to be 20 locations, complex perspective shots, fantastical CGI, montages, etc. That is not what theatre is here to give us. When done well, it stretches our imaginations without breaking them. In a play, a box can be a table, a chair, a podium, a car, then a television, or it can be all these things at once. We ask plays to offer us the dialogue, story, acting, lighting, staging, and ingenuity to make us effortlessly accept that that box down stage is a spaceship.
Films involve cameras and we usually expect this addition to mean something for the final product. Film usually does not have the power to demand much from our imagination in the way plays do. If there is a box over there, film is hard-pressed to make me believe that it is a spaceship.
And as much I try to resist the sort of stuffiness/ elitism that can come with movie loving, a small part of me still wants to push back against the validity of recording-a-play-and-calling-it-a-film. That is not to say the filmmakers did not employ film techniques and put thought into the production of the piece. It is to say that in not wanting to mar what is a fantastic play and piece of writing, the “adapting” took a back seat.
Another part of me wonders whether it really is such a bad thing that this feels more like well-shot theatre than a typical film. If anything, this work immortalizes the play by providing in a recorded version of it, with fantastic actors to boot. The star power of Viola Davis and Denzel Washington coupled with the awards buzz will open the story up to an audience who might not have known about the play. The performances of the actors are phenomenal; the acting is one of the strongest components of the film. In different hands, the beautifully written dialogue would not have sold as well.
The film also does a great job of giving racial issues an important role without striping the characters of their humanity by turning them into mere symbols , suggesting that their experiences are framed solely by their racial identity. Viola Davis’ character Rose Maxson is a black person in 1950s America, and that poses its challenges and importantly informs her personality. However, she is also a woman, a mother trying to keep a household together, a wife wrestling her love for her husband with the recognition of his flaws, and an individual who has her own desires.
Recognizing the power and truthfulness of the acting, character work, and story, I can stand to forgive the other qualms I have with the film. Overtime, as the audience adjusts to the format this film has chosen to take, it becomes so immersed in the story it begins to forget the quarrels it had with its theatre-like quality/ staginess. No film is perfect; so, to have just one or so flaws is success.
Overall, there is no denying that the story is nuanced and fascinating, the characters are complex and realistically-flawed, the acting is powerful and skilled, and the words are beautiful and breathtakingly strung together. Sometimes films force you to enter a different type of experience. Musicals (on film) often require that you allow for a sort of un-believability that film does not usually afford (people singing). Perhaps films adapted from plays must demand something more from an audience’s mindset. Maybe we must excuse the lack of fancy cuts and camera tricks for the sake of absorbing this important story.