Fences ★★★½

On stage, “Fences” is an incredible play — a landmark of American art (black or otherwise), August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning portrait of a family in crisis unflinchingly weighs the smallness of human lives against the immensity of those living them. And on screen in Denzel Washington’s adaptation, “Fences” is…an incredible play.

Starring and directed by the actor (who reprises the role he played in the show’s 2010 revival on Broadway, for which he won a Tony), the film is a faithful, ferociously performed adaptation that never finds — or even seeks — a way in which the cinema might compensate for the absent buzz of live theater. In fact, “Fences” is such a respectful tribute to the source material that Wilson retains sole screenplay credit despite the fact that he died 11 years ago. If Washington mines the playwright’s 1987 masterpiece for every scrap of its pathos, he finds precious little of its poetry.