Fences is the long awaited screen adaptation of August Wilson’s 1987 Pulitzer Prize winning play. After decades of rumors, and starts and stops, the African-American family drama set in the 1950’s and 60’s finally made its film debut this Christmas. Denzel Washington directs and stars as Troy Maxson, a “garbage man” who fought to make a life for his wife and son all the while struggling against the ghosts in his life, ghosts that made life so difficult for many or most African American males in the early twentieth century.
Troy Maxson is one of those characters that takes command of every scene as he depicts a man who by his personality and presence would be described as bigger than life. Were he in a different demographic, he would be the life of every party; as it is Troy is the center of every discussion of which he is a part. By sheer force of spirit, personality, or anger fueled resentment in response to the hand life has dealt Troy imposes himself as well as his thoughts and beliefs on those with whom he interacts.
Troy shines the brightest light or casts the darkest shadow to every gathering and conversation. Troy is known for his gift of gab and storytelling as well as his passion for baseball. His good, and perhaps only friend Bono tells Troy he “has some Uncle Remus in him,” as he has the ability and seeming compulsion to mythologize and spin any life event or experience. While blessed with talent reserved for only the best of the best baseball players of his time, Troy had the misfortune of barely missing out on the integration of the major leagues. The result of this loss for Troy (and so many others black baseball stars who never made the majors) is that the game that defines his life no longer brings joy, but rather renewed resentment. Each season, if not every game in each season, when he sees much lesser players succeed he is reminded of what could have been as well as what should have been.
As Troy often says, the finest woman he knows is his wife Rose (Viola Davis) who requires all the strength of the “steel magnolia” she is so as to stand with, and when necessary, up to the force that is Troy. Because of her relationship with and proximity to Troy, Rose, more than anyone including Troy himself, must live out Maxson’s maxim for baseball, which provides Troy the setting and secrets to understanding life itself; “you got to take the crookeds with the straights.” When Troy is a “straight,” no one makes life more alive, and when he is a crooked, no one makes life more delicate or complicated. Throughout the film, Rose enjoys more “straights” as well as endures more “crookeds” than most persons would ever hope or expect.
In addition to opening a window into the lives of working-class African American families in the first half of the twentieth century, Fences also presents the contrasting choices everyone has to life’s challenges. Troy is never able to move past the hurt and pain he received from life. Whether it is abuse directed at him by his father or the racist society he grew up in, Troy lives by the survival lessons learned from those times, even though the times have changed. Troy believes it is his “duty” as a father to prepare his younger son Cory for life in the same world in which he grew up. Even though the world in the mid-1950’s to early 1960’s, far from perfect, it had and was continuing to change from Troy’s world in the 1920’s to 1940’s. In addition to what could be considered emotional abuse toward his son and wife, Troy believes his life challenges have entitled him to selfish indulgences. Though he knows his action is a betrayal, he also believes he is owed something in life, and when offered, he accepts it without ambivalence.
On the other end of the spectrum of choices in response to life’s challenges are Rose’s choices. Rather than responding to pain and anger by inflicting pain onto others and living off anger, Rose responds with grace and hope. As with Troy, Rose has had challenges and disappointments in life. Rose has fears associated with living continually on the financial edge. She worries about the world her son is about to face on his own.Yet, Rose chooses to look and live for the positives and possibilities in people and situations. Even when betrayed and asked to do the unimaginable, Rose seeks to find and model grace so as to bring beauty even into ugly circumstances. Rose matches and exceeds the selfishness of Troy with a selflessness that brings light into the darkest shadow cast by her husband.
In his ethical teachings, most notably his Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus speaks to these two ways of living. Rose’s actions are the epitome of the Kingdom of God and those who living blessed lives. She does hunger and suffers for righteousness, she is perpetually a peacemaker, she demonstrates to others what it is to be pure in heart, she is poor in the spirit that is ego and anger, and she is merciful. In life and in these and other ways of faithfulness, Rose is blessed. Some today might be critical of her decision not to leave her husband and thereby continue to expose herself and her son to the emotional abuse of Troy. However, the prospects of being able to provide a better life in that day and age would have been doubtful.
With the vast majority of the film taking place in and around the Maxson house, as well as the manner and delivery of the dialogue, Fences has the feel of a play rather than a film which suits this material very well. August Wilson is indeed credited as the screenwriter as Denzel Washington used a screenplay Wilson had written before his death in 2005. The setting, script, staging and performances allow viewers to fully experience the transformational arcs of Troy, whose decline and weakness emerge from his demonstrations of strength, and Rose whose growth and strength are unveiled through her Kingdom living by grace and meekness.
In addition to Washington and Davis, Stephen Henderson (Bono,) Russell Hornsby (Lyons,) and Mykelty Williamson (Gabriel) reprised their roles from the 2010 Broadway production. While the entire cast offers superb performances, Viola Davis provides a performance for the ages that is powerfully profound and vulnerable.
Fences is a powerful film that speaks to life; to the joys of friendship and family as well as living through disappointment, conflict, and the broken places in life. The intensity of the film, however, is well managed with depictions of humor and times of happiness and joy. Fences is rated PG-13 for language.