It will be touted as progress, if the film adaptation of “Fences” manages to grab a bunch of Academy Awards nominations next month. But I have to state well ahead of that near inevitability, that it’s absolutely not what I was looking for when I supported the #OscarsSoWhite campaign at the ceremony for 2015’s nominees. Certainly a number of people of color were ignored by the powers-that-be. But that doesn’t mean that I desire knee-jerk recognition of sub-par work to become the norm. And this feature version of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play is often outright terrible. Plus, it’s the worst kind of Oscar bait…it practically screams for attention. And the least said about the embarrassing role of Gabriel, with Mykelti Williamson as the mentally-deficient brother of the lead character, the better. Subtle, it’s not.
Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington, recreating his Tony-winning Broadway performance…unfortunately he thinks he’s still on a stage) is a former Negro League baseball player, renowned for his big swing. But he’s 53-years-old now, a married father working as a garbage collector in the Pittsburgh area, during the Eisenhower era. Rose Maxson (Viola Davis, managing her Tony-winning transfer to screen better than Mr. Washington. But still…far from her best work.) is his loyal, but long-suffering wife. We watch Troy struggle through his meager existence. A strong confident man, but also a hard drinker, prone to some aggressive outbursts. Troy’s co-worker, and best friend, is Jim Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson, quite good actually). And Lyons (Russell Hornsby) is Troy’s musician son from an earlier marriage, while Cory (Jovan Adepo) is his high school age son with Rose. But it’s a daughter that spins the Maxson family into turmoil.
Some stage works simply don’t transfer well to the big screen, and this appears to be one of those. And yes, I’ve seen it on the boards, in the original Broadway version from almost 30 years ago, starring the great James Earl Jones (however, I did not attend the 2010 NYC revival, that featured a number of folks from this cast). Most everything is completely overwrought and stage bound in this adaptation. And it’s so labored, that each scene is set up to be a BIG, FAT LESSON. It’s exhausting. Denzel Washington and Viola Davis are two of our finest actors, but each has a difficult time making this project work as a movie. And Mr. Washington’s direction leaves plenty to be desired. The passion is visible, but there’s an absence of finesse. A more experienced maestro, may have made it sing. So, as much as I hate to say it: forget what you’ve heard. “Fences” fails.