Five stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity and mild profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.28.16
Big-screen adaptations of famous plays can be problematic; it’s often difficult to “open up” the drama, in order to avoid a claustrophobic sense that the result is simply a filmed stage production.
As a director, Denzel Washington and production designer David Gropman haven’t done much to expand this play’s original stage tableau; most of the action still takes place in the back yard of the tiny home that Troy Maxson shares with his wife Rose, although the film also brings us inside, where we see how hard she works to keep things clean and tidy. Occasional establishing shots give a sense of mid-1950s Pittsburgh, and we spend a bit of time with Troy and best friend Bono, making their rounds as garbage collectors.
But it really wasn’t necessary to enhance any of these settings, because the film’s secret weapon is the same element that made the play a Tony Award-winning hit during its initial 1987-88 Broadway run, and subsequently led to a Pulitzer Prize: playwright August Wilson’s mesmerizing dialogue. Many of the lines — particularly those spoken by Troy — have a lyrical, attention-grabbing cadence that transfixes us just as much as the drama itself.
Fences was revived for a 13-week Broadway run in the spring of 2010, once again earning multiple Tony Awards, including a pair for stars Denzel Washington and Viola Davis. They’ve reprised their roles for this film adaptation, and remained utterly faithful to Wilson’s original script: No “adaptor” has messed with the dialogue.
The result is an enormously powerful showcase for Wilson, Washington and Davis.
The two stars have numerous impressive scenes, and it’s difficult to cite one over the others. But, days later, I remain drawn to a moment when Troy shares an incident from his childhood: an event that precipitated his running away from home, at age 14, to escape from a dangerous father who might have killed him. In a role that’s given to deliciously baroque, self-indulgent speeches and explosions of short-tempered anger, Washington’s handling of this scene resonates for its contrast.
He relates the anecdote quietly, its impact still affecting Troy deeply, so many years later. As an audience, we dare not even breathe: just as transfixed as the characters listening to Troy speak. I’ve not seen a moment to match this degree of softly narrated trauma since Billy Bob Thornton’s first soliloquy, in 1996’s Sling Blade.