Fences review: Denzel Washington and Viola Davis set to convert Tonys to Oscars

This long-awaited film adaptation of the August Wilson play remains stagy, but as a showcase for two towering performances it could hardly be improved

Ever since August Wilson’s play first premiered 33 years ago, a movie version has been mooted. Soon after it won the Pulitzer back in 1987, Eddie Murphy was lined up to play the lead – Troy, a former baseball star working as a garbage collector in 50s Pittsburgh – with Norman Jewison behind the camera. But Wilson put his foot down: there was no way it would be directed by anyone who wasn’t black.

The project fell through and the play stayed on the stage. Revival after revival met with acclaim, but Wilson held firm, continuing until his death in 2005 to insist on a black director, and to voice upset at the danger and injustice of how, in cinema at least, “whites have set themselves up as custodians of our experience”.

Wilson spoke those words in 1990. But it’s a sentiment that resonates today, as awards season rolls round again and with it the risk of another #OscarsSoWhite debacle – the backlash which met a total absence of acting nominations for anyone of colour for two years running. Fences is a film which – alongside Moonlight, Hidden Figures and (perhaps) Birth of a Nation – will help ensure that doesn’t happen this time round.

Our director is a relative novice: Denzel Washington, making his third movie behind the camera, aged 61. You can see why he picked the project: this is essentially a transfer of the 2010 Broadway revival which won he and co-star Viola Davis Tony awards, and which she – as Troy’s wife, Rose – is guaranteed to convert into Oscar gold come February. (He’ll probably have to make do with just a nomination.) Two other graduates of that production have been brought along too: Mykelti Williamson as Troy’s brain-damaged brother, Gabriel, and Russell Hornsby as Troy’s eldest son, Lyons.

Watch a trailer for Fences

The actors aren’t the only thing to have been co-opted. Although (backyard excluded) no two scenes take place in the same bit of their house – and even a couple off-property – the aesthetic is still inescapably stagy. Vestiges of greasepaint are everywhere, from the carefully assembled period props to the entrances and exits, especially those involving Gabriel, whose tragicomic histrionics, wielding a broken trumpet and warning about St Peter, fail to feel organic in a way film demands.

Washington’s movie – almost music free, completely dutiful to Wilson’s work – lies somewhere between the stabs at cinema in John Wells’s August: Osage County and the full embrace of the stage that has made live-streamed plays so popular lately. (But just remember: those have intervals. Fences does not.)

Yet immersive cinematography and widescreen escapism is not the point here. This film is conceived as a showcase for its performers, and, as that, it is immaculate. Washington has played a lot of rotters, but Troy is surely his least vain role to date. He begins irresistible, holding court for Rose and best friend Bono (Stephen Henderson) in the backyard, a few swigs of gin down – ebullient and mesmeric, deep sweetness cancelling out that hint of bitter. He’s a rascal but loyal with it; a tough father to younger son Cory (Jovan Adepo), but with justification (Troy’s monologue about his own upbringing is a tour de force of hard-earned self-pity).

Ambling along … Denzel Washington with Stephen Henderson in Fences.
Ambling along … Denzel Washington with Stephen Henderson in Fences. Photograph: David Lee/Paramount Pictures

The action ambles along engagingly until a mid-play revelation which, by dint of how much it must change your opinion about this man in whom you are now invested, hits the audience almost as hard as it does Rose. What was a flawless if inessential piece of works turns into something of terrible force and portent. It also gives Davis a chance to unleash something close to magical anger, underpinned by a terrible grief.

Washington’s charisma crumbles before your eyes: he is suddenly weak and pitiful, a grotesque rather than an aspiration. What’s slightly distracting is his age – at 61, the actor is nearly a decade older than Wilson intended, and the motives of the awful actions are muddied by what must be his imminent retirement. And although one admires the loyalty of bringing along most of the cast, the same ageing issue does hobble certain moments. “I’m 36!” protests Lyons at one point, unconvincingly.

None the less, Fences offers meat for moviegoers hungry for chewier fare after their turkeys (it’s released in the US on Christmas Day). Would Wilson be pleased? A black director, extraordinary performances, as faithful an adaptation as you can imagine. He’d be ecstatic.

  • Fences opens on 25 December in the US; 3 February in the UK


Catherine Shoard

The GuardianTramp

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