Fences: It’s all about the acting

Broadway doesn’t usually translate to the silver screen all that well.

Oscar winner Denzel Washington’s film adaptation of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning play “Fences” might just be the truest, most authentic stage to screen transformation in cinematic history.

“Fences” might not be the year’s best movie, nor a game changer in Hollywood for years to come. However for nearly two-and-a-half hours, Washington and co-star Viola Davis put on an acting clinic few films this decade could match.

And at the end of the day, that’s really all there is to “Fences,” a movie that feels like the audience is sitting on stage with the performers, most of whom are reprising their roles from a 2010 revival on the Great White Way.

Washington plays Troy, a former Negro League baseball star living in a small Pittsburgh house now forced to work as a garbage collector at 53. A character-driven drama focused on Troy, his wife Rose (Davis) and their teenage son Cory (Jovan Adepo), “Fences” is the perfect slice-of-life film reflecting on middle class African-American life in the 1950s and unfolds more like a stage drama than a cinematic one.

Scenes are extended in small, tight locales in Troy’s backyard, kitchen or porch for 15-20 minutes at a time without much room for audiences to breathe. The confining nature of the filmmaking along with Charlotte Bruus Christensen’s subdued cinematography make for a unique experience unlike anything you’ll see in theaters this year.

While his work as director on the project is quite good, “Fences” may go down as one of the five best films Washington has ever done for his masterful portrayal of Troy, a performance he’s clearly thought about and crafted over nearly a decade. 

Few performances you will see in 2016 will have anywhere close to the charisma and vibrancy Washington exudes out of Troy early in the film. When the entire narrative flips on a dime just prior to the start of the third act, Washington completely reverses course and digs within himself for an incredibly poignant, powerful turn that will leave viewers astonished at the end.

Normally, a tour-de-force turn from two-time Academy Award winner Washington would chew up all the scenery and be the entire focal point of the feature.

Previously an Academy Award nominee for “Doubt” and “The Help,” Davis will be this year’s clear frontrunner for Best Supporting Actress in a career best performance as Rose. Her ability to play off Washington’s dynamic performance in a subtle, understated manner until a critical turn late in the feature is a testament to her ability to create a complex character in limited screen time. Davis’ work is devastatingly arresting and worth the price of admission alone.

“Fences” is also buoyed by a terrific supporting cast, many of whom also reprise their roles from the 2010 Broadway revival. Mykelti Williamson is an absolute revelation as Troy’s brother Gabriel, a war veteran severely injured in battle causing him to become mentally handicapped. There’s both an immense joy and sadness within Williamson’s performance that should be celebrated during awards season, but likely won’t do to higher profile, more flashy turns from other performers.

Even without the expected reaction to last year’s #OscarsSoWhite controversy pushing voters towards African-American led films, “Fences” should be a shoo in for nominations in the Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress categories. An additional nomination for Washington in the Best Director category would not be out of the realm of possibility either.

Simply put, “Fences” is unquestionably one of the year’s 10 best films and the closest thing to live theater that cinema can bring to the big screen.

Washington’s third directorial effort is an amazing foot forward into the possibilities of adapting Broadway plays and a must see for any Academy Award lover this holiday season.

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