Despite some common misconceptions, cinema and theater are completely different art forms. While theater primarily relies on actors’ performances to transport its audience to the time and place of the narrative, and the necessary set dressing are merely props to lend a degree of physicality to those performances, cinema instead usually creates an artificial reality all its own, dependent as much on cinematography and production design as on acting performance. Before any theater nerds get on my case for being overly reductionist, I make this observation in light of Fences being an adaptation of a fantastic and beloved stage play, which was even adapted by August Wilson, the author of the original play. And while the core of the play is largely intact, it is not a story designed for a cinematic experience.
Fences is the story of Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington), an older man in the mid-20th century who constantly runs his mouth off against the establishment that disenfranchised him and constantly decries anyone who would seek to take anything he sees as his. This even includes his sons, one from a previous marriage who struggles to succeed as a musician and a teenager who only wants to succeed at football and receive a college education as an attendant benefit. Troy is further plagued by guilt for accepting money to take care of his mentally disabled brother and for transgressions against his wife, Rose (Viola Davis).
As a showcase for acting talent, there isn’t likely a better vehicle all year. Washington pulls double duty as the film’s director, and not only does he manage to give an astounding performance as the complex figure that is Troy Maxson, he enables his entire supporting cast to bounce off him and each other in ways that feel heartfelt and genuine. The real star, though, is Viola Davis, whose performance is so tinged with nuance that when her character finally explodes under the pressure that Troy constantly puts on her, it is not only viscerally shocking but also not at all surprising and retrospectively inevitable.
But other than the performances, there isn’t much to recommend about Fences, at least not if you have some way to see a stage production of the play. The screenplay directly translates the long monologues of the play to the screen, which preserves the integrity of the original text but doesn’t do much for a cinematic audience more accustomed to more natural conversation. The action is restrained mostly to the one location of the Maxson home, which doesn’t do much for visual engagement, no matter how well Washington and cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen attempt to change up camera angles and perspectives to keep things fresh.
The theater is still primarily a medium that relies upon words as its language; cinema is primarily a visual medium, and so it’s rare that a great stage production will make for a great film without some major reworking. Fences the movie is still the great story of intergenerational strife and racial anguish that makes Fences the play a modern classic, so it’s easy to recommend it on that basis alone. But if you have a choice to see a stage production, the film may only be superior in the quality of its performances, because in every other respect the translation falls short.