Fences are funny inventions. They are some of the most human of human inventions. They seem indomitable simply because they exist. Be it stone or wood, brick or clay, it is the handiwork of someone who feels they can beat whatever is coming down the way by sheer will. A fence is the culmination of hard work, determination, good intentions and that most basic and fierce of all human conditions: fear.
Denzel Washington took on an interesting project for his directorial debut. He and co-star Viola Davis have worked this play inside and out during their short — but Tony-filled run — in 2010. August Wilson’s words probably ached in their marrows before they even picked up his script for this adaptation. Washington is smart enough to not have to do much with this script, with this cast, with this story. It’s a script that was built on a stage and lives on its feet. Just keep the cameras rolling and try and capture the humanity on display.
Washington, however, digs deeper. Odie Henderson’s excellent review from RogerEbert.com alludes to the deepening of the visuals in the film. Instead of trying to blow up the play to fit the screen, Washington, Director of Photography Charlotte Bruus Christensen and production designer David Gropman fill in the rest of the picture to place these characters within the context. It’s a fantastic doubling act: a play wrested from life and placed onto the stage is then played out inside a living tableau.
This is evident within the framework of the camera. Washington smartly keeps things open as we get to learn the characters. We see the warmth between Washington’s Troy and Davis’s Rose, built on what seems like pleasant but shaky foundations in two shots. Troy’s friend Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson) literally opens up the frame whenever he’s around. The camera ingratiates him as a member of the household, just as it does with Lyons (Russell Hornsby), Troy’s eldest.
That payday joviality isn’t doing anything other than masquerading as harmony. We have the rest of the image to thank for that.
Throughout the film, the dead center of the shot is scythed by any number of vertical objects. While Troy turns in another one of his big stories, the shot is bifurcated by any number of hard, stiff lines: the pole that hangs the laundry line, the edge of the brick house, the jamb on the old screen door, the edge of a window sill. This follows into the house, where the cut of the living room’s porthole door into the kitchen is always lingering whenever talk of money bounces around the walls, or in the shots of time passing in montage as a crack down the middle of the street. The sun can rise and it can set but that crack, as long as the block, never fades.
Most of the discussions between the principals play out in two shots. The characters share the screen, their heads splitting the difference. But notice how these hemispheres disappear whenever Troy and Rose speak about their son, Cory (Jovan Adepo), or when old friends talk about their pasts spilling out into their future, or when a brother (Mykelti Williamson’s Gabriel) appears and wrenches up sympathy and shame.
All of the characters mired in these conflicts take dead center. Here they are not just the impediments for the others but their safety. It’s the duality of a fence that is voiced in the money line by Bono: fences can be made to keep things out or to keep things in. Cory wants to start his own life away from his father but Troy refuses to let his son go, fearing the pain and rejection that he has felt. Troy feels boxed in by a life he never wanted and tries to escape, only to find himself boxed in even further. Rose thinks that the biggest road block in her life can bring her down but it only lifts her up in a way she never felt before.
Washington does a superb job visually reminding us that everyone faces these fears in their lives. And, as they do so, they have to wrestle with trying to both fortify themselves and their loved ones while trying to storm the gates to their freedom. Otherwise you might stop and see who you’ve locked yourself inside with. And that is a scary thought.