Denzel Washington directs himself—and admirably so—in Fences, a big screen adaptation of the August Wilson play Washington won a Best Actor Tony for in 2010.
That Tony was actually for a revival. The play originally hit Broadway in 1987, when James Earl Jones also won a Tony for playing Troy Paxson, an ex-baseball player trying to cope in the 1950s. Washington costarred with Viola Davis onstage (Davis won a Tony, too), and she returns for this film as Rose, Troy's long-suffering wife.
The point being made here is that Fences is very much a well renowned and well-rewarded play. As a movie, well, it still feels like a play.
While the performances in Washington's film version are mostly electric, some of the staging comes off as if some people are putting on a stage show and filming it. It takes place in very few locations, and the more melodramatic characters don't necessarily translate well to the big screen.
Troy and Rose live in Pittsburgh, where Troy labors away in the sanitation department after a stretch playing baseball. Troy never made it to the big leagues, due to both the color of his skin and his age, and that's a reality with which he hasn't necessarily come to terms. He has an older son, Lyons (Russell Hornsby), from a previous relationship, and a high school aged son, Cory (Jovan Aldepo) with Rose.
This movie gives Washington the chance to act in bitter, angry mode, and nobody does bitter-angry better than Denzel. Troy, in many ways, is a total asshole. He's a philanderer, he doesn't treat his sons with any kind of real respect, and he's selfish. He feels that selfishness is justified after the beat down the world has given him.
Cory has a chance to get a college scholarship due to his football prowess, and this doesn't set well with Troy, who wants his son to avoid sports. This leads to memorable confrontations between Washington and Adepo, who more than holds his own against his legendary costar.
As good as they are, it's Davis who shines the most in this movie. Her Rose is equal parts tragic and inspirational, a person willing to put her own needs aside to help others. When Rose finds out about another Troy baby, one that will turn her entire family's life upside down, her reaction is incredible. And the portrayal of that reaction is one of the reasons Davis will most assuredly get a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination (she and Washington already have Golden Globe nods, as well as SAG Awards nominations).
The confines of the screenplay and the story's original intention for the stage make this one feel like something that should've gone to Netflix. While it would've been a departure, maybe some flashbacks to Troy actually playing baseball could've made this feel more cinematic. The movie feels trapped in Troy's backyard.
Troy's brother, Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson) feels like a character meant for the stage and stage only. Running around with a trumpet he can't play and a plate in his head, Gabriel feels like more of a caricature than a character, and the movie stops in its tracks whenever Gabriel speaks.
Whenever the film hits a speed bump, it rights itself with another golden moment from Washington or Davis. The roles fit them like gloves, and it's obvious they've played the parts before, many times. Their scenes together are some of the year's most powerful from a pure acting standpoint.
Hornsby is very good as the older son who stops by every payday for 10 bucks from his unorthodox dad. Washington and Hornsby have some great exchanges that manage to be funny and pretty tense at the same time.
So, if you missed Fences on the Broadway stage, and chances are you probably did, this film works as a satisfactory chance to see Washington and Davis in their acclaimed roles. It's no technical marvel for sure, but it's an acting powerhouse in service of a very good story.