Actors who become directors are very common in the film industry; however, actors that become good directors are a rarer breed. We have had some few recent examples such as Mel Gibson and Ben Affleck, and with Fences we get the testament of a new actor bidding his way into the directorial spotlight: Denzel Washington.
Fences is adapted from the 1980s play written by August Wilson. The play deals with a black family in 1950s Pittsburg. The patriarch of the family: Troy (Denzel Washington) is a pessimistic man who frequently puts his son Cory (Jovan Adepo) down and only sees the light with his wife Rose (Viola Davis).
The film feels very uncomfortable in the sense that for the audience it’s very much like being a fly on the wall and spying on a real family’s private life. It gives one a perspective into the lives of black families in these very conservative times. But the film doesn’t go to the common subject matter of racism, it goes more into the generational divides and envies; something rarely tapped upon in period pieces.
The story is written like a Greek tragedy and Washington is smart to play to that genre. Wilson’s play has an incredibly rich dialogue and unique characters, but his actual story and its pacing is a bit sluggish, and given the avalanche of dialogue that Washington gives us at an incredibly fast pace, the audience is forced to remain focused at 100%, and this ends up becoming a bit wearisome towards the end.
Nearly the entire cast here reprises the roles that they played in the 2010 Broadway revival (including Davis and Washington who both won Tonys for their performances), so one can see how comfortable they all are with their characters. The familiarity of the roles allows the cast to focus their acting into a much deeper analysis of the play and bring some incredible performances, most notably from the two leads. Washington as a director is smart to give a lot of free reign for his expert cast, he entrusts them completely with their characters and you can see the how these relish in their freedom.
Fences is a very insightful film, it’s incredibly strong performances are worthy of awards attention, and the acuteness that the audience must employ to follow the full extent of the plot is a willing price to pay to enjoy this great film.