Details: Released in 2016. Stars Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, and Stephen Henderson. About two hours and twenty minutes long.
Fences is a movie directed by and starring Denzel Washington. It’s based off a fairly famous play which I read through in college. The role that Denzel plays was also famously played by him in the play and by the talented James Earl Jones. There’s one especially memorable monologue that sticks out and I enjoy it every time I hear it.
Here’s the premise: Denzel Washington plays the head of a working class family in 1950’s America. We watch as him and his family try to get through life. This is a family drama.
Before watching this movie you need to know that it was based on a play and stays true to those roots. This is a good thing. Most scenes take place at one place: their house. There are seven primary characters, all in some way members of the family. That’s it. Despite the lack of locations and actors, this movie is still a resounding success.
You also need to keep in mind the history of a film like this. The play this film was based on is so well-known that it is likely part of the syllabus of most theater courses in the United States. It’s material that many with interests in the theater go back to periodically. So when you look at these characters and these lines, realize that there is a long history of people approaching and portraying these characters.
I imagine that when you are the first to play a character, a lot of time and effort is spent deciding how the character should be portrayed. With characters like these, these monoliths who’ve been played by so many and whose lines are known by so many, the approach, I imagine, is different. You want to stay true to the material and the performances that came before yet you want to make it your own. I imagine this to be a difficult line to straddle.
Denzel Washington gets a free pass in the acting department I think because he was already well-known for playing the exact same part in the theater production. If you do an internet search of his theater performances in Fences, you’ll find many results. You may even be surprised at the different approach he took toward some of the scenes. Denzel is great. Viola Davis is also amazing and after watching this film, I think there is no question she deserves the nod, if not the win, for the Academy Award for best actress in a supporting role. Everyone was very good, though Denzel and Viola stand out.
Overall, a great adaptation that retains and furthers the emotion and intensity of the play. The thing about plays is that the only people who can watch a play are those who can fit into the theater. Film allows more people to enjoy a story in it’s intended medium. While I don’t think it is the clear winner of best picture of the year, it is definitely a contender and deserves the win if it were to receive it.