Directing and starring in his first film since The Great Debaters in 2007, Denzel Washington adapts an August Wilson play to give audiences an intimate look into the personal life’s of a black family living in Pittsburgh during the late fifties in his newest film, Fences. While most directors struggle with trying to distant their screen adaptations from its stage counterpart, Washington strongly embraces Fences stage roots. By maintaining Fences theatrical connection, a lot of the film’s success rides on the cast’s performances and the film’s cinematography to keep the audience engaged. Ultimately, these directorial decisions deposit the audience into the backyard of the Maxsons, the film’s central family, although this adhesion to theatrical storytelling may not be something film audiences are in fact interested in.
In recent years, filmgoers have not only become accustomed to, but want and expect, large cinematic set pieces when they visit the theater. As a result, studios are stripping their bank accounts and story from films in order to produce special effects heavy action sequences. Seemingly disregarding this trend on purpose, Fences tells an action-less film on a modest $24 million budget. With the exception of some isolated scenes, the film takes place in the backyard and first floor of the Maxson’s house. The reason the film is locked down to such limited locations is because it does not rely on spectacle, and is instead one hundred percent character driven. While character driven stories are able to give the audience more to walk away with, maintaining audience engagement is a difficult task. In most cases, a film relying this heavily on characters would fail as asking an actor of any caliber to be the sole reason audiences remain engaged is too monumental of a task. However, not that he needs to at this point, by doing this very task Denzel Washington solidified his spot as one of the best working actors in Hollywood. Even though his character, Troy, by most accounts is an unlikeable protagonist that audiences find difficulty in commiserating with, the nuances that made the drunken character come alive allowed Washington to keep audiences awake during lengthy monologues. With that being said, the performances from Washington’s costars, Viola Davis and Mykelti Williamson, also alleviated some of this pressure on Washington and deserve their praise as well.
While many leaving the theater will note the performances of the cast and leave it at that, Fences cinematography also contributes greatly to the film’s achievement. One would imagine that due to the film being restricted to one location the cinematography would not be striking, yet it is because the film is primarily conversation driven that the cinematography is crucial. In most films, directors do not spend a lot of time storyboarding conversations and instead just settle for simple shot reverse shot set ups and instead focus their energy on larger action sequences. If this same method of thinking were used in Fences, even with high caliber performances, the dialogue heavy scenes would drag on, as the audience would just be watching a parade of faces. Instead, by having the camera sweep around the scene and through actors, the audience remains alert as they are questioning what the camera is going to reveal next. These types of shots, in conjunction with the actor’s performances, are enough to keep audience’s wanting to pay attention.
At times, Fences is one of the best character studies of recent memory, and at others it simply feels like a Broadway play that happened to be filmed really well. The performances throughout the film solidify the cast as the best ensemble cast of the year, but even with that, the audience was still monitoring their watches for when the film would end. In close, Fences is not a film that many will go back to more than once. It does a great job at exploring complex characters that are not seen on screen often, but at the end of the day film going audiences still want a cinematic experience when they watch films and Fences sticks too closely to its theatrical roots to deliver that to them. Largely thanks to the performances, Fences is still a film worth checking out and as a result Celluloid Cinema awards Fences 3 out of 5 reels.
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