Based on August Wilson’s Pulitzer and Tony award winning play, Denzel Washington’s production of FENCES never escapes its theatrical roots. Astonishing then that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has nominated the film for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay.
FENCES is only marginally more cinematic than those National Theatre filmed plays that are presently doing the art house rounds.
The great strengths of the film are the performances and with wall to wall words, from the roof of the mouth to the basement of the base baritone, you understand why actors of the calibre of Denzel Washington and Viola Davis would be attracted to such mouth filling verbiage.
Washington plays Troy Maxson, whose sweet talking can switch to venomous vocabulary in a second. He’s a blue collar Black man working sanitation in Pittsburgh in 1956. Davis plays his wife, Rose, mother to his son, Cory played by Jovan Adepo.
Troy appears to be the loving husband and responsible father, but there is a resentment rotting his happiness and self esteem. He was robbed of his youth by a prison spell brought about by his robbing to provide for his first family.
On release, he had the potential for major pennant baseball, but his age and race put a kibosh on that aspiration. Cory’s aptitude as an athlete rankles rather than rewards Troy and instead of supporting the lad, he sabotages.
Troy also has a mistress who he has impregnated, so Cory has bookend half siblings.
Wilson’s play has all the hallmarks of the big, sprawling American theatrical saga spearheaded by Miller and Williams but with the added ingredient of a the Black American experience. It’s a terrific play but not a great screenplay, becoming dirge like and bogged down by the verbal barrage.
Having secured the play and the formidable Viola Davis to play Rose, Washington takes a leisurely, almost lazy, hand at direction, confining most of the action to inside of the Maxson maison or in its scrappy backyard.
Washington is up for his third Oscar for his performance as the venting sufferer of morbid verbosity. Viola Davis scores her third Oscar nomination and it may just be third time lucky for this versatile actress.
Episodic as to enervating, unwieldy in its excessive length, FENCES does not sustain cinematic interest for two hours and twenty minutes despite two towering performances.