Stage plays adapted into film always raises a red flag immediately. There’s a danger of just “shooting the play,” which means the film is just two hours of actors trading long monologues while the camera remains generally inert. Unfortunately, “Fences” really hammers home the fundamental difference between theater and cinema, showing that the difficulty in translation is more than just a matter of “staginess.” Denzel Washington, both director and star of the film, uses the camera expressively and in an appropriately subdued way. Every shot and cut has been carefully thought out, accentuating the performances while giving full weight to the environment surrounding them.
Formally, this is very much a film. Nonetheless, it still feels like a play. It is a great play, of course and I’m grateful that this film allowed me to see it performed by such a superb cast, as I had previously only read it. Just hearing Washington marry his distinct vocal mannerisms to American playwright August Wilson’s unique cadences is a treat. And Washington is the star of the show of course, making up the director and lead actor. Washington makes Troy fully human, particularly during the showdowns with his athlete son, while also giving him the stature of a generational archetype. This is a man whose entire world, from his domestic relationships to his economic opportunities, exists in a tug-of-war between the Civil War and Civil Rights.
There are awkward shots, scenes hurriedly rushed together, and many moments that feel stilted due to camerawork. But Washington is, as strange as it is to think of him as new at anything, a new director, so that can be accounted for. What strikes me most about the film is how unremarkable it really is, a story we’ve all seen before, played by actors who have played these parts before. It works for the most part, though perhaps halfheartedly, as if the film itself did not really want to be noticed. However, Washington strives to be noticed.
Washington fills the screen with a presence that few actors can summon for the best movies, much less one this mediocre. This is a film, (barely), that seems to not know if it wants to be a nice little indie-drama or big tentpole Oscar bait and suffers because of this. Up against films like “Moonlight,” “Hello or High Water,” and “La La Land” for best picture, “Fences” is one that I almost want to fail, as unhappy as that makes me. It’s a misfire, but not a disastrous one. Just one that could be better.
Fences: 3/5 cigars.