starring Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen Henderson, Mykelti Williamson
screenplay by August Wilson, based on his play
directed by Denzel Washington
by Walter Chaw Denzel Washington's Fences is movies as medicine. Not the sugar-coated, easy-to-swallow kind--the castor oil/barium enema kind. The toxic-herbal-brew kind my mom used to try to make me drink but, you know, I'd rather be sick. Fences is based on August Wilson's venerated, Pulitzer- and Tony-winning play, which has been in the works as a feature since 1987, when Eddie Murphy bought the rights and then couldn't bring it to fruition after Wilson publicly pronounced that he would be displeased if the material found its way into the hands of anyone but a black director. Paramount was given a list of names that included the person who should have directed this movie, Spike Lee, but ultimately they offered it to a white guy, Barry Levinson. Levinson passed because, among other things, Wilson's own adaptation of his play did not seem to him to successfully bridge the gulf between theatre and cinema. If Levinson was smart enough to pass because the script was ponderous and stagebound, that explains why Lee was never attached to the project: Lee is way smarter than Levinson. It's the impossible errand, this Fences thing. Wilson, being the figure he is, was not the sort of person whose opinion you ignored, nor the sort of person whose work you rewrote. So the project died. And then Denzel Washington was brought on board, insisted on doing a Broadway run to live inside the play for a while, and now, five years after that, here's his Fences. And it's just exactly as godawful as you'd expect it to be.