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Review: Fences is a Triumph of Screenplay Fidelity

By Caroline Cao · January 3, 2017

Fences is a melody teetering on the edge of becoming off-beat until you become swept up—enchanted—in its turbulent dissonance. 

After squatting in decades-long developmental hell, the Fences film adaptation has finally sprung up from the pages and the stage. I never witnessed the stage production of Fences, but the poetic words of August Wilson commanded my attention more so than its whiter counterpart Arthur Miller’s Death of the Salesman. I found Troy Maxson to be quite compatible with the classic loser, jerk of a husband and father Willy Loman. But there’s a piercing distinction: Troy Maxson is a black man who has been battered by racial circumstances at the bottom of the social ladder while Loman’s failure was of a middle-class brand. Indeed, I was not surprised to read that Wilson clarified in old interviews that “the blues” inspired the play—not Miller’s Willy Loman.

Although nearly two decades old since its Broadway premiere, Fences tells a story fit for 2016 in this tumultuous climate. Denzel Washington and Viola Davis reprise their stage roles from the 2010 Broadway revival as Troy and Rose Maxson respectively.

In the first scene, Troy hangs at the back of a moving garbage truck, all jovial, chatting up with friend and co-worker, laughing at his own jokes, musing how much he loves Rose, and coming home to smother her with kisses and praises, though we suspect it’s more praise of himself for loving her than of her. And his nostalgic musings insinuate an undercurrent of ache. Before his trash-taking days, he had pined to become a baseball star but circumstances, both related to his own accountability and the merciless race relations—have barred him from wielding the baseball bat as a star. Nowadays, he sometimes wields the bat in imaginary battles with the Grim Reaper. 

With so much charisma and earnestness, Washington sells Troy’s sincerity. At a heartbreaking confession, even if we saw it coming a mile away from the film’s first three minutes of dialogue, you still believe in his love even while you and Rose feel conned.

Under Davis’s graceful precision of emotion, Rose swivels around emotions as fickle as her husband does, except her turns depend on her husband’s cues. Rose rotates around, annoyed with his impropriety, and then chuckling, charmed, savoring every second of his jolly mood before he blurts out or yammer something to sour the mood. Then she can let loose the storm on him. 

Troy and Rose’s son Cory (Jovan Adepo) at least has the privilege of time to live a less tragic coming-of-age story and he tries to escape his father’s looming shadow. When he’s accusing his father of stifling his football prospects, he knows his father fears he’ll just become better than him. He’s right. Troy insists that Cory won’t actually ever get better or rise, no, not in this racial-fueled society. We see Troy’s point. 

This season is filled with conversations about Washington and Davis’s Academy Award prospects, but in this film, the screenplay is the true star of the film and the players are the vehicles of Wilson’s words. The characters of a Wilson play often resort to coy natural metaphors to circumvent their inability to be straightforward. Listen to how Troy precludes a confession with a baseball narrative. There’s the classic “How come I don’t like you” speech when Troy lectures his son on the monetary-moral importance of weighing out between wanting a TV versus the practical need to fix the roof. Then there’s Davis’s cathartic rebuff, “I’ve been standing with you,” when her husband vents he’s been standing in the same spot with feelings of inadequacy. Wilson’s language is assaultive, brutally honest, but slamming and lightly tapping on the right key of humanity and the entire cast is the right messenger for these words. 

With meticulous restraint, Washington directs the setting in a shanty, surrounded by a soft ambience and atmosphere of weather and sight. He uses the intensity of a steady camera movement, leering on the contemplative weary faces of Davis and his own. The passage of time unravels in montages and meditative beats for contemplative scene transitions. Not everyone critic is a fan of restrained play-to-film adaptations and insist that adaptations should risk extreme cinematic liberties for the visual medium. True, perhaps the heftiness of Wilson’s wordy contents—with virtually about 95% uncut from the play, I attest to—can clutter up the coherency of a conversation and net the accusations of “Academy Award-raking performance piece.” But Washington has true mettle to avoid trimming its loquacious density and stick to framing the script, permitting occasional scenic expansions that wouldn’t be possible on stage, including the one cerebral punctuation of sound—or rather, quiet—and sight toward the end that could be achieved by well-timed lighting on stage.   

The supporting players, such as Troy’s friend (Stephen Henderson), serve to mirror the Maxson’s state of living. Troy has another son Lyons (Russell Hornsby), in his 30s, independent enough to know what he wants out of life but dependent that he has to borrow ten dollars (that he does pay back). He watches his father boast with both pity and admiration. The true scene stealer is Troy’s brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), afflicted with a metal plate in his head, and wanders into Maxson’s familial circle like a stranger and disenfranchised soul who doesn’t know his destination but gives as much as he can to his family, even if it’s only a flower. He believes he’s an angel, carrying a trumpet he has yet to be seen playing, but once he puts his lips to it, it belts out an atmospheric ending punctuation. 

Although there is no knowing what the late Wilson would have thought about Washington’s film-directorial interpretation of his script, I hope that Wilson would trust my judgment when I affirm the blues are strong with this one. 

Caroline Cao is a Houstonian Earthling surviving under the fickle weather of Texas. When she’s not angsting over her first poetry manuscript or a pilot screenplay about space samurais, she’s doing cheesy improv performances for BETA Theater, experimenting with ramen noodles, or hollering vocal flash fics on Instagram. Her columns and poems have popped up on The Cougar, Mosaics: The Independent Women Anthology, Glass Mountain, OutLoud Culture, and Aletheia. Her flash fiction recently earned an Honorable Mention title in Sweater Weather magazine. She has her own Weebly portfolio and lends her voice to Birth.Movies.Death