Sometimes life, responsibilities, and priorities conspire to prevent me from seeing a film I “should” see in the theater. Such was the case with Fences, which was often my number two choice to see, and never managed to make it to number one. While I felt disadvantaged in terms of dialogue with others, especially during awards season, there is often a benefit to seeing something outside of the context of hype, others’ opinions, and awards.
While it’s unfair to say that the emperor has no clothes, it is fair to say that the royal robes found by others turn out to be more of a linen undergarment. Its themes are momentous, wide and often moving, but the film itself has significant problems. Some of those problems arise from its origin on the stage. This is based on August Wilson’s 1985 play of the same name, the sixth of the playwright’s 10-cycle “Pittsburgh Cycle.” Winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Award for Best Play (as well as acting awards), this is a highly regarded and respected work, and therein lies some its challenges as it made its way to being filmed.
First though, its high point is another magnificent performance by Viola Davis. The film gives her every opportunity to display her talents, and she makes full use of them. As seen in some previous films (Doubt especially), no one ugly-cries like Davis. She’s not afraid to look bad, or off-kilter or complicated. To use an overworked word, it’s a stunning performance, and well deserving of all the awards she received.
Denzel Washington, star and director, fares less well. As a star, Washington is deeply loved by the viewing audience and the Hollywood community. He has star power and always grabs the screen. I believe he’s won certain awards because of who he is and not because of the performance. But he’s only a good actor, not a great one, and between the theatrical origins of his performance and a character that doesn’t quite fit the actor, what we see is the acting, not the character. He thunders, berates, and reminisces in fine fashion, but it’s the writing of his part that keeps things in bounds more than his locking down on his character. He’s at his best when he’s not declaiming and dressing down, but when he has a single line here and there that doesn’t carry the weight of the longer addresses.
The film may well go down as a film-school example of the difficulties in adapting a theatrical work for the screen. Fences reminded me of the problems with the cinematic versions of Phantom of the Opera, and to a lesser extent, Les Misérables. There was such misplaced fidelity to the original that the films (which I’m sure were creatively bound by contract to keep in almost every last note of music) ended up becoming music videos, or “filmizations” of the original stage work.
For Fences, there is a similar problem, but with words, words, words instead of notes. Yes, the words are glorious, but they were written for the stage, to be proclaimed in a live setting, with every theatrical convention in place around them. The words are all a part of the slight unreality that is the stage, and the obvious respect for them has hurt the film. There has been a good deal of criticism that this is a stagey film, and some have counted this as a blessing, as it preserves the essence of the original work. Yes, and so do those live video productions of operas and musicals.
Washington helped mount a highly touted Broadway production of the play in 2010, and he and Davis starred in it to great acclaim and Tony Awards. His support for the play, and then the film to follow, may well have been what opened the door for the film version to be made. Washington’s decision to direct may have opened the door to production, but also limited the final product.
But back to the screenplay. There were apparently small changes made from the play, but it was Wilson himself who wrote the screenplay before his early death in 2005. It didn’t veer far from the play, and it should have. Wilson was clearly not a filmmaker, and the occasional camera movement, montage sequence, or close-up can’t hide the fact that at this point, Washington is not much of one, either. His direction is serviceable at best, and what he’s serving are Wilson’s words and his and Davis’ performances. Again, that’s a great focus for the stage; for a film, not so much. The film opens, for example, with such a barrage of verbiage from Washington’s character that it overpowers the frame (and thus the viewer). That power likely rocked a theater audience. Here, it tends to either push away the viewers, or dull their senses, or both. Nearly every scene goes on too long, either a little or a lot. The story itself is buried under the words and the filmmakers’ dedication to them, and is never allowed to emerge cinematically in all its pain, power, and perspective—a tragic loss. It’s clear that the filmmakers revere the play, and that reverence handicapped the work as it made its way into a film.
In spite of the authority of its insight into the world of 1950’s black America, racism, marriage, fathers and sons, and many other worthy topics, this film is finally a vessel for some commanding words and one great and a few good performances. It’s also a classic example of what too much respect for the source material looks like.