The greatest value of "Fences" is its bringing August Wilson's masterful play to a wider audience. Denzel Washington's role as a director and a producer is an act of artistic service as much as a personal career high. It feels almost churlish to observe, then, that it falls short of greatness as a standalone work precisely because of Washington's inadequacy behind the camera.
The director stars as Troy Maxson (a role which won him a Tony Award on stage), a former Negro league baseball player in 1950s Pittsburgh living with his wife, Rose (Viola Davis, reprising her own Tony-winning role) and teenage son, Cory (Jovan Adepo). Troy wishes to prevent his son, a potential college football player, from being held back due to his race, but does so by squashing his dreams and personal freedom.
There's an adage that 90 percent of directing is casting. Washington is at least 66 percent successful on this front, wisely re-enlisting his stage costars Stephen McKinley Henderson and Russell Hornsby as Troy's best friend and his frustrated older son, respectively. Less successful is Mykelti Williamson, reprising his role as Troy's brain damaged veteran brother. The performance, which works from a distance on stage, feels too studied in close up; Adepo similarly falls short, never hitting more than one note at a time in a scene while his fellow actors run the scales.
Still, the leads more than make up for them. As Troy, Washington plays a force of nature of a man: belligerent, self-righteous, furious at the world that wronged him and at himself for his own failures. Yet it's one of his most playful performances as well, whether he's adopting a mock-thankful tone while in in disciplinarian mode or genuinely joking around with his wife or friend. He's also given to remorse, making a giant figure seem small as he contemplates his sins, his own tyrant father, or how little he's been able to earn in a world that's unaccommodating to him.
Where Washington is as big on screen as he might be on stage, Davis benefits from being able to play quieter notes without fearing them getting lost in the back rows of the theater. As Rose, she plays her disappointment in Troy's worst qualities with sighs and silences, her joy at his best qualities by perking up ever so slightly. Her showstopping moment, a rebuke to Troy's apologetic but self-serving monologue explaining his latest wrong, works precisely because she's grounded the rest of the character as someone who's had to be quieter.
So spectacular are the leads' performances that it makes one wish that Washington had found a more muscular filmmaker to hand the camera to. Some of his instincts are good: in the early going, he smartly lets the performances dictate the speed of the scene, mostly blocking them for maximum effect. He's also able to capture the atmosphere of the time, the specificity of pouring one out before taking a drink or of the shabbiness of the home Troy has fought hard for.
Trouble comes whenever Washington has to do something a bit more complicated: In confrontations, he has a habit of cutting arbitrarily, breaking some of the power of the monologues when a steady gaze or a more precise approach to editing would benefit. As for the brief scenes and montages added to the film to bridge the time elapsed between the show's scenes, Washington directs with a bluntness that underlines the trials of the characters but lacks the poetry of Wilson's world.
That's part of the trouble with bringing a play from the stage to screen: Without finding a way to replace the immediacy of theater, there's a slight dead air feeling that keeps the film from being its own thing. The late Wilson's desire to see the film made by a black director is sound, but one wishes for the touch of a rising talent (Ava DuVernay), an underutilized veteran (Carl Franklin), or Washington's frequent collaborator Spike Lee, any of whom could have truly adapted the show to film. As is, this is more transcription: worthwhile, at times very good, but not quite the masterpiece it clearly is in its original form.