Originally written for the stage in 1987, conditioned for film in 2016, and set in post-WWII Pittsburgh, Fences’ lessons and messages cling to no specific time. Through a stream of personalities and types, this organically progressing narrative marvelously utilizes a small stage to tell this story.
If Fences feels miniaturized, like the play it’s based on writ large for the screen, that’s not incorrect. The adaptation to the medium feels minuscule, the cuts and breaks where set changes once happened almost visible between the seams. Yet Fences loses none of its thrust in the transition. If anything, on screen, where the expectations become broader in consideration of cinematography, production/sound design, and higher budgets, isolation grants Fences additional power. No one leaves the few featured spaces, unusual for the medium, and the advent of its background metaphor – the fence itself – grows in strength.
August Wilson’s words, pulled his original script, carry such an honesty. They peer into bigotry, bias, and racial division from the inside. Not from piles of voices, but those who, off-screen, receive the hate and bury it when they arrive home to their low income existence. Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington) wears his frustrations then sends them outward in difficult-to-control outbursts. He holds back his son, worried the potential football star will fall to the wayside as Troy did playing in Negro leagues. Those subtle ways in which racism burns; Fences reveals that impact.
Denzel Washington frequently owns the screen…
Denzel Washington frequently owns the screen…
Depressing and difficult material, yes, housing stories of disabled veterans, minimum age earners, infidelity, and broken families. Within though come stories born of experience, tall tales, imagination, and people being people, just speaking to other people as equals. That race barrier falls as they sit, discussing their problems. Denzel Washington frequently owns the screen, self-directed as he espouses his stories of the past over a bottle. His affable demeanor slowly collapses, cracking scene to scene, revealing a broken man whose buried aggression weighs on his family.
Rarely away from the kitchen, Viola Davis faultlessly plays a woman of the era, helpless without her husband even as that husband pulls away. Still, Davis’ Rose mends and repairs a crumbling family unit, at times silently staring in a performance celebrated for its emotion, yet strongest when she hopelessly watches.
In the end, despite promises to the contrary, the home’s roof isn’t tarred and there’s not a TV in the living room. The fence is up though, posted in the backyard, serving its designated purpose. It’s not about property division or privacy, rather a figment of separation, togetherness, and bonding. What the fence did or didn’t solve isn’t critical, instead indicating what’s past.
Beautiful cinematography, often static and distant, allows the transfer to dole out definition from a film-derived source. Encoding from Paramount works to maintain accurate grain, remaining steady without an increase in noise. It’s unusually stable – few films manage such a level grain structure.
Short of two shots which appear to use the wrong lens or were poorly corrected in post, much of Fences appears pristine. Stellar fine detail and image clarity continue for the duration, spilling from a thick contrast and lightly diluted color.
Constant close-ups means a chance to show off facial definition, and shots of the Pittsburgh streets excel into the horizon line where industry shoots smoke into the skyline. Brickwork on the house and overgrown weeds surround the backyard set, all defined.
Almost entirely photographed in daylight, that hefty contrast lends an appealing look, and shadows likewise feel natural. If night does fall, black levels maintain image density and depth.
Birds chirp, kids yell, and dogs bark in a widely ambient soundstage. What seems excessive soon becomes organic as this 7.1 mix takes time to wrap around the neighborhood sounds. Exteriors fill with audible cues, each sensible even if the track isn’t a powerhouse. It’s a champion of subtlety though.
Inside, the emptiness of the simple home echoes as dialog passes, a sharp accentuation of the surroundings. Few moments of scoring mean Fences lives on natural grounding and this mix is better for it.
Five featurettes, all less than 10 minutes each, pick a topic and hone in as these things tend to do. Of interest is Expanding the Audience, nine minutes spent discussing August Wilson’s stage work and the adaptation. Also, August Wilson’s Hill District, detailing the location shoot and why it was important to shoot in an actual Pittsburgh neighborhood. The final three detail the cast, one for Washington, one for Davis, the third for the rest.
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Difficult but captivating drama Fences slowly reveals the impact of racism, poverty, and racial bias through the viewpoint of a single family.
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