Fences is, quite understandably, inextricable from the acclaimed play by August Wilson that it was adapted from. Though it was only published in 1983, it has been continually lauded and produced over the past thirty years, earning Wilson both a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award and being placed in high school English classes across the country (including one attended by yours truly). So, it is both wise and unwise of director and star Denzel Washington (who also won a Tony for the same role in 2010) to stick as closely to the content of the play for his adaptation. Aside from a few montages in between the acts of the play (though of course this delineation isn’t explicitly stated), restagings of scenes, and one brief scene without dialogue, Washington stays doggedly faithful, producing a film that manages to both feel like its own work while feeling a certain absence.
The greatest asset that Fences possesses is its lead, Troy Maxson (Washington), a garbageman living in Pittsburgh with his wife Rose (Viola Davis) and son Cory (Jovan Adepo). It revolves around him; virtually every character mentioned or seen is first met through him. This isn’t to say that the characters don’t have their own aspirations or defining traits, but he is the anchor, almost literally in some cases, that grounds and strengthens the film. Washington takes to this role with almost too much vigor, infusing him with both an overflowing braggadocio and a more intriguing brand of tenderness, prone to anger and pride but also clearly caring in his own gruff manner. As a result, the movie is nearly thrown off balance in its struggle to keep up with his tremendously dynamic performance, often racing through various moods and modes in the same scene.