‘Fences’: A great play forced uncomfortably onto the screen

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Grade: C
Verdict: Bubbling with empathy and richness, August Wilson’s play maintains its humanity despite iffy filmmaking choices.

As far as I can tell, “Fences” is a great play. August Wilson has written a moving, empathetic story of a Pittsburg trash collector whose bouts of violence, hard-headedness and obsession with his failed baseball career complicate his relationships. Wilson’s writing is pitch perfect, his dialogue is poetic, but natural and his characters are hearty and rich.

But a great play doesn’t necessarily make for a great movie, which is where Denzel Washington’s “Fences” finds trouble. Everything good about it comes from the writing and the strong cast, while it struggles to turn something made for stage into a visually compelling film.

Washington (director and star) and Viola Davis are the heart of “Fences” as Troy and Rose. Troy, our Pittsburg garbage man, loves Rose with all his heart, but this doesn’t stop him from screaming and knocking around when he’s drunk and mad. Rose takes this in stride after 18 years of marriage, knowing he’ll snap out if it and smother her with love in due time. The story focuses on a few important moments in their lives, as Troy’s hardwired understanding of a man’s role in the world complicates their marriage and the lives of his mentally handicapped brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), and his sons, Lyons (Russell Hornsby) and Corey (Jovan Adepo).

These characters are a delight, bursting with life thanks to both terrific acting and great writing. Troy in particular is a triumph. He’s a character much easier to hate than sympathize with, and it’s a mark of Wilson’s immense talent that we understand him so well and can forgive him when we need to. But he’s never let off the hook; he and the audience know that all his problems are is own, and we are never teased into unearned sympathy. We’re both angry with him and understanding, which makes him truly human.

A movie is more than its writing and characters however, and the presentation of “Fences” really detracts from all that delicious empathy. Wilson wrote the screenplay based off his own script, resulting in long stretches of monologues that Washington should have axed with his directorial power.

Movies are best when we understand characters through what we see, not through what they say. Take, for example, one of this year’s best films, “Manchester by the Sea.” We understand Casey Affleck’s character just as completely as we do Troy, but it’s because we watch how he lives in a series of short, compelling scenes. We don’t listen to him talk about himself for an hour.

Washington’s direction ignores that principle completely, giving us 10-20 minute periods of people jabbering, while the camera obnoxiously circles. Such monologuing works within the restrictions of theater, but in movies it’s a bore to watch.

Save your money and catch “Fences” on TV. Or better yet, pray a theater company near you puts it on and go see that. Wilson’s work deserves better than this adaptation.

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