Saturday, January 7, 2017

A Few Thoughts On Fences

I've been teaching for twelve years now, teaching every grade level from 9 to 12. Some of my favorite experiences have been teaching the plays of August Wilson. His stories are moving and epic in scope in a way that kind of sneaks up on you. When I read that Denzel Washington had acquired the rights to produce Wilson's work for the large and small screen, I was stoked. FENCES was the obvious first choice because it is such an important part of the American canon and Denzel had a successful run on Broadway with it. And the film was terrific.

As someone that's taught (and read FENCES) dozens of times, seeing the lines from the play on screen were terrific and moving, especially when comparing them to the way that I imagined them. It's interesting to see just how different the story plays out in the film compared to the way that I imagined it. The big difference was in the level of intensity of particular scenes and how they played out in Denzel's version of the play. (Have never seen any actual performances of the play other than this and my class reading it out loud, this is my only experience with it.)

Denzel and Viola Davis OWN Troy and Rose. Denzel's physical transformation into Troy for the film was astonishing. There was never a doubt that he had the chops to embody the character of Troy Maxon, but physically he became the character. And you can just feel through all the emotions that Rose is feeling in every scene just from a look. She captures the complexity of the character of Rose and delivers all the feels from a gut wrenching, broken hearted speech when she finds out about Troy's infidelity to a quiet, four minute rebuke that made me literally say, "OH SHIT!" out loud. But it's the quiet understanding that no matter what, she is Troy's woman. Stephen McKinley Henderson (who has been in a million things) plays his role as Bono perfectly, actually elevating the role from my expectation.

The film was slightly padded, not entirely in a bad way and kept the staging simple focusing on a more theater style (reminded me of the Dustin Hoffman DEATH OF A SALESMAN but in an actual yard) as opposed to a cinematic one. But the way the film was shot added to the film in so many ways, moving in ways you couldn't on a stage and playing to Troy's wild story telling and the almost claustrophobia of the neighborhood where they live.

A few notes:

  • One of my favorite scenes in any play/film ever is the "How come you never liked me?" scene. The two most well known versions of it are the original James Earl Jones one and the Denzel one from the Broadway revival. Jones's version is thick, tense and intimidation while Denzel's is lighter, funnier and more playful. In the film, Denzel practically did the Jones version beat for beat. I gasped when he was doing it and had to explain to my wife why I reacted that way. 
  • Denzel did some of his best work when he wasn't talking. Troy is a talker, but the quiet moments were where Denzel shined. The desperation and frustration in Troy's face and body when confronted by Gabe, not only what was wrong with Gabe but what Gabe's injuries provided for the Maxon family that Troy could not, was palpable. The heartbreaking reaction to Rose's "You are a womanless man" line is just stunning. 
  • The kid playing Cory was overwhelmed. Seriously. He was good, but when sharing the screen with this cast, the kid just couldn't hang, which may have been the thought when casting him. 
  • The relationship between Bono and Troy is so incredibly well played and way better than the way that I've read in class. I'd always seen Bono as the Chester to Troy's Spike (Looney Toons reference), but it isn't played that way at all. They are equals and one of the most powerful scenes in the movie is when Bono calls Troy on his BS and living up to his threat. 
  • The play also contains one of my favorite lines in the English language. Troy is talking about his son and says, "I want him to move as far away from my life as he can." As a father (especially as the father of a son), this line is everything. I wrote a found poem using it about my own son. It just hits me right in the chest and did so when Denzel said it. I'm pretty sure my wife didn't notice me getting the dust out of my eye. 

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