Fences’ makes an awkward transition from stage to screen

As both director and star, Washington (right) has delivered a movie that feels entirely stage-bound.

Two and a half stars

Fences Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen Henderson. Directed by Denzel Washington. Rated PG-13. Opens Sunday citywide.

Denzel Washington’s film adaptation of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1983 play Fences was originally set to be part of Washington’s planned series of Wilson adaptations for HBO, and it might have been better off sticking to the small screen. Working with the entire cast of the Tony-winning 2010 Broadway production, Washington (as both director and star) has delivered a movie that feels entirely stage-bound and artificial, with set design and performances that might make sense for live theater, but which feel stilted and ineffective onscreen.

Set in 1950s Pittsburgh, Fences stars Washington as Troy Maxson, a garbage collector and fiercely overbearing husband and father, who keeps his wife Rose (Viola Davis) and teenage son Cory (Jovan Adepo) in line with the force of his personality. The majority of Fences takes place in the Maxson house and yard, and the limited locations make the story feel limited as well.

Wilson’s screenplay (completed before his death in 2005) is full of long, florid speeches that might hold audiences rapt onstage, but regularly grind the narrative to a halt. The overwrought performances are all pitched to the back of the house, especially Mykelti Williamson’s cringeworthy turn as Troy’s mentally damaged brother Gabriel. What should be an earthy depiction of working-class African-American life is instead awkward and unconvincing. In bringing the play to the big screen, Washington has only made it smaller.

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