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Fences Earns Raves on Opening Day

Here’s to Fences making boatloads of bread. Here is AO Scott, who calls it a critic’s pick:

Language is also, in another sense, Troy’s very substance. He came into being as words on the page, words assembled and given life by the playwright August Wilson. Embodied onstage first by James Earl Jones in the original 1985 production of “Fences” and more recently by Denzel Washington in the 2010 Broadway revival, Troy is one of the indelible characters in American dramatic literature, equal to — and in some ways a pointed response to — Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman.

But even as it properly foregrounds Wilson’s dialogue — few playwrights have approached his genius for turning workaday vernacular into poetry — “Fences” is much more than a filmed reading. Mr. Washington has wisely resisted the temptation to force a lot of unnecessary cinema on the play. The action ventures beyond Troy and Rose’s yard — into their house and onto the street, mostly — to give them a bit more room to move and the audience a little more to look at. Confinement, however, is a theme implied in the play’s title, and opening it up too much would risk diluting the power of watching large personalities colliding in a narrow place.

And the LA Times’ Kenneth Turan:

If you close your eyes while watching “Fences,” you can listen as the extraordinary language of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, some of the most thrilling speeches ever heard on an American stage, washes over you and lifts you up.

When you open your eyes, it’s as if the 2010 Broadway revival of that play, itself the winner of three Tonys, is unfolding right in front of you. Which is mostly, but not entirely, a good thing.

“Fences” is the first work by Wilson to become a feature film, and any opportunity to see one of the dramas in his 10-play American Century Cycle, which profoundly delve into a century’s worth of black experience in America, is something to be grateful for.

More than that, this “Fences,” working from a script Wilson completed before his death in 2005, reunites five cast members from that 2010 production.

And the Village Voice’s April Wolfe writes:

Fences puts black lives in the center of their own stories. But for as much as we theater nerds know and love the play, the fact remains that most African Americans have not felt invited to see it. This screen adaptation, a wide release starring and directed by Denzel Washington, one of this country’s last true movie stars, is vital because it has the potential to reach marginalized communities. But it also stands as an aching, lyrical, performance-driven masterpiece in its own right, a film so intense and engrossing that movie houses really should screen it with an intermission.

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Washington may take an actors-first approach to his direction, but he’s not easy on his own character. I’ve seen this play on the stage a few times, and there’s always a kind of magic at the end — no matter how terrible Troy gets, audiences can’t help but still feel love for him and sympathy for his pain. Washington’s portrayal is harsher than many stage Troys. Here, as the years pass, Troy says dumber and more hurtful things to Rose until she finally breaks and lashes out, tears and snot flowing freely down her face — Davis at that moment becomes the people’s champion.

And because, as the film nears its end, Washington chooses to focus his camera so attentively on Rose, she slowly becomes the central figure in this Fences, not Troy. There’s no bitter laughter that will endear us to him this time, just a raging fire burning in Rose, siphoning all the oxygen for her flame.

In some ways, Fences parallels Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th, which draws a kind of road map for how African Americans were disenfranchised and incarcerated after the abolition of slavery, with repercussions spanning generations — and the hurt cycle keeps spinning. Wilson’s tale is an enduring story without easy answers or false triumphs, one that gets more complicated as it ages; all the questions about today’s America still have their echoes in Fences.