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‘Fences’ might be an elaborately filmed play, but it’s still breathtaking

(David Lee/Paramount Pictures)

When studio heads get together to discuss their next projects, an adaptation of a play is rarely high on the priority list. Plays tend to have small followings and rarely attract “Lion King”-sized audiences. Unless they’re musicals, plays never exactly scream “box office smash.”

August Wilson’s play, “Fences,” opened on Broadway in 1987. It went on to win the Drama Desk and Tony Award for Best Play as well as the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. In 2010, Denzel Washington and Viola Davis revived the play to great acclaim on stage, and now, six years later, have taken their revival to the big screen.

“Fences” follows the story of Troy Maxson (Washington), a Black garbage man in 1950s Pittsburgh, and his family. From the outside, Troy seems to have a fine life. He’s excited about the weekend, as demonstrated when he expresses his undying love to his wife of 18 years, Rose, (Davis) over a pint of gin. Given the socioeconomic realities of the period, Troy has carved out a decent life for himself and his family.

As soon as the characters begin to speak, you know that this script wasn’t meant for the screen. Maybe it is because Wilson, who died in 2005, also wrote the screenplay and Washington (who directed the film) did not want to disrespect one of the great modern playwrights by hiring a screenwriter to alter his dialogue for the screen.

The downside of Wilson’s screenplay though, is that it feels ill-equipped for the big screen. Washington makes few changes to Wilson’s original work, with most of the scenes presented in exactly the same manner as they are in the play. This is not meant to discredit Wilson’s work as a playwright – his plays can be compared to those of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams in their significance – but this translation of his work to the screen leaves something to be desired.

From the opening scene, it’s clear that the role of Troy is practically written for Washington. Washington is at home in Wilson’s words, tearing through them like a man on a mission. He knows that his voice is his best weapon, and releases it on his cast mates and the audience with fiery passion. Washington’s portrayal of Troy allows the audience to both hate and eventually empathize with him, the sort of duplicity only a true acting talent can pull off.

Davis is just as strong as Washington’s foil. Rose acts as the moral conscious of the story, fixing Troy’s problems as he creates them. It is obvious that Davis and Washington’s countless performances of this work together (eight times a week for three months) has paid off. The duo’s chemistry is electric, and powers the film. Innately familiar with the screenplay, and how to navigate it together, they do so with the precision of master-class performers. Just as one finishes speaking, the other one fires the scripted insults right back, as if they are at war with each other.

August Wilson always aimed to tell the stories of the unheard. In “Fences,” he honors the life of the average Black man, whom society treats with disdain. As Davis said in an interview with James Lipton on Inside the Actor’s Studio,” Troy is the janitor, the guy who cleans toilets at McDonald’s or the guy who drove your bus, “but that guy has a life, that guy has a story.” Even if these lives are fenced in either by discrimination or economic exploitation, these are the lives that Wilson honors. In Denzel Washington’s “Fences,” for all its faults, these lives are given a voice.

Lauren LaMagna can be reached at llamagna@umass.edu and followed on twitter at @laurenlamagno.

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