‘Fences’ an adapted play that mostly shines off the screen

fences

BY ROGER THOMAS

     “Fences” began as a play by August Wilson. After the play became successful, Wilson adapted his play for the cinema. Two of the best actors working anywhere today signed on to star in the film, and one of the actors also took on the role of director. 

     Denzel Washington directs the film version of “Fences” and Viola Davis co-stars as his wife. Washington has six Oscar nominations and two Oscars, one for Best Actor for “Training Day” and another for supporting actor in “Glory.” Davis has not won her Oscar yet, but she has been nominated twice. Her first nomination was for Supporting Actress in “Doubt” and the second was for Best Actress for “The Help.” If she gets her third nomination for “Fences,” which is almost guaranteed, she will very likely win this time. 

     Two great performances but there are others as well. Jovan Adepo portrays the son of Troy and Rose Maxson, the roles of Washington and Davis, respectively. Adepo is working with two heavyweights, but I mention him because I believe he holds his own, especially in the scenes where his character, Cory, is challenging his father. There are many emotional moments in this film, but the exchanges between father and son are exceptional.

     Stephen Henderson plays Troy’s co-worker at the sanitation department, and his character Jim offers much of the humor in the film. If Henderson seems familiar that is not surprising; he has done a lot of work over more than thirty years. Another of his recent characters is a role in this past year’s  “Manchester by the Sea.”

     I have focused nearly half this review on the acting.There is a simple couple of reasons for focusing on the performances of the actors. The first reason is that across the board these are very satisfying portrayals by everyone on the screen.

     The second reason is less praising of the filmmakers. As stated above, “Fences” is based on a play. I have never seen the play, but I can imagine it on stage, because for me, the film feels like a play. Not all, but many of the scenes happen in one place, the backyard of the Maxson home. Both conversations and quarrels occur in that setting. Sometimes the audience enters the house. Occasionally, there are scenes that are set elsewhere, but for the most part, the action of the film is in that backyard that seems to need a fence. At least Troy thinks it does and he is determined to get his teenage son to help him build the often-mentioned fence. 

     During all the talking and arguing, mostly in the backyard, the audience gets to know the Maxson family. I found them to be engaging about two-thirds of the time. There are moments that seem repetitive and moments that could have lasted much longer. Overall, I am glad I saw it, and I will remember it for its strengths.

     Among the films of 2016, “Fences” does not have a place on my Top Ten List. It falls somewhere in the second tier of the fifteen runner-ups. So, it is in my “Top 25” out of the 158 films from 2016 that I have seen.  I commend Washington for his direction of the film and all the actors for their work. The screenplay is strong; the performances worthy of all the accolades. 

     However, for me, there are at least ten films from 2016 that have something special and unique that I just did not find while I was hanging out in the backyard of the Maxson family’s home. That does not make it bad film, just not one of the very best.

  Roger Thomas is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association. He reviews films for The Stanly News & Press.

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