I was still a kid when an English teacher thought it was a good idea to take our class from the Bronx to “The City” to see Fences on Broadway. I am not sure what teacher it was, but I knew that the story has stayed with me ever since. I cried and cried watching Troy Maxson and his family navigates the waters of their lives.
I am not sure if it was my father’s own cheating, philandering and fathering other children while married to my mother that made it so real for me. Maybe it was Rose’s ultimate decision to raise a child that her husband fathered or Troy’s refusal to give up his extramarital affair that did it for me. But somewhere in my pre-teen mind, I felt the story deep in my soul.
We’d read the play by August Wilson but, the playwright, the man, wasn’t real to me, nor was his contribution to the culture.
Years later, I would meet, via Twitter, Kimberly Ellis aka Dr. Goddess. We met at a tech conference for black women, and later on, she was my roommate at my first SXSW. Our friendship has blossomed over the years. It wasn’t until there were rumblings that Denzel Washington was bringing Wilson’s seminal work to the screen with Viola Davis, that I found out that Dr. G was August Wilson’s niece. What a secret to keep! But it wasn’t a secret at all. Dr. G has been, on and off Twitter, deeply involved in the work of preserving August Wilson’s work for some time. A quick scan of her Twitter timeline reveals this and even her visits to the set during filming.
For this and other reasons then, I could not miss the opportunity to support Fences the movie. I didn’t, for a second consider ways in which the story would be even more real for me as an adult.
Fences is, quite simply, a masterpiece of a film. Set in 1950’s Pittsburgh, the story revolves as does the play, around Troy Maxson, the troubled patriarch of the Maxson family. Troy is played by Denzel Washington and his wife Rose, is played by Viola Davis. It is not an exaggeration to say that Davis and Washington are two of the finest actors anywhere on the planet right now. The pair also played the couple in the Broadway revival of Fences in 2010, for which both actors earned Tony Awards.
There is ease between Davis and Washington that belie the great respect they show not only for each other but also for the characters so masterfully and skillfully created by Wilson so many years ago.
Viola Davis has the ability to morph completely into whichever character she plays. She manages to embody Rose so completely that there is virtually no trace of Viola left. And yes, of course, that IS what acting is and few are better at it than Ms. Davis. The quiet, long-suffering quality shrouded in dignity rarely afforded Black women on screen is matched only by the fiery intensity of Mr. Washington’s Troy Maxson.
Much has been written of Troy but not nearly enough about how Washington has brought him to life. For the first 15- 20 minutes of the film, Washington’s Troy captures us in a way rarely seen on screen.
The dialogue is rapid fire and Washington’s Troy moves easily between the raunchy, and the raucous, the bravado and the brooding. Washington plays Troy with so much respect, it is as if now, in middle age, he is able to finally understand and embrace the underlying humanity in Troy Maxson.
Troy Maxson, the man, is someone with whom we are all familiar. He’s our uncle, cousin, grandfather and just maybe, for some of us, our father, too. He is by no means perfect and Washington does not attempt to fool us into thinking that he is. To understand Troy is to see the hopes and dreams of a generation crushed by white supremacy. Those around him try to explain to Troy that things have changed — are changing. But trapped in the realization of his own unfulfilled dreams, Troy proceeds to stifle the dreams of his young son Cory, played by Jovan Adepo who wants to play football. We understand this well, those of us with parents who had dreams and ambitions that were thwarted by ‘the way things were’.
He is mired in his bitterness and languishing in anger for those unrealized dreams and now makes his living as a garbage man. Maxson was once the greatest baseball player of his time, a star in the negro leagues but these days, he rides the back of the truck picking up what people throw out; dreams and all. His spirit is restless and in more ways than one. He wrestles with what could have been – a promising baseball career cut short; he wrestles with his son, who pushes back every step of the way and is a shining example of what he could have been and possibilities ahead. He wrestles with his job and his push to improve his standing from picking up garbage to being a driver – a job once only held by whites. He wrestles with his masculinity, which leads him to father a child outside his marriage and most of all; he wrestles with his own mortality, keenly aware that death is ever present and just a wink away.
We know Troy Maxson. We’ve seen him with a fifth of gin at the liquor store. We’ve heard his raucous laughter at a family cook out, we’ve seen the flash of brilliance in his eyes and his easy smile gives a hint of what could have been. If only… We see Troy a few times a week, maybe even every day. Our neighborhoods are full of Troys; unrealized dreams and lots of potential.
It isn’t easy to love Troy, to live with him. As Davis’s Rose tearfully and emotionally explains – she planted herself and her dreams deep inside him only to find out that the ground was cold and rocky and her dreams could not take root, much less grow.
Troy and Rose Maxim are not easy to understand. They are complex characters. As complex as we’ve seen on the screen this year. In this, what seems to be a golden age for African Americans on screen, Fences asks us to briefly take a look back. It peels back the surface of what we think we see to reveal the bare soul of a family.
I think that anyone who takes this journey will easily find familiarity in the story of Fences. After all, at its core, it is a story of an American family. There is no great triumph at the end of the story. Families, especially black families know all too well that life must go on despite disappointments. It is what we do because we must.
Fences is the movie theaters now. More about Dr. G here.