Review: Fences Is Heartbreaking and Hopeful
Denzel Washington (dir), August Wilson (wri)
Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen Henderson, Jovan Adepo, Russell Hornsby, Mykelti Williamson, and Saniyya Sidney (cast)
December 25, 2016
August Wilson’s Fences adaptation has been a long time coming.
Fences debuted as a stage play in 1987, and featured James Earl Jones as the prideful patriarch Troy Maxson and Mary Alice as his dutiful wife Rose. After a years run and over five hundred performances, the play won several Tony Awards, including Best Play. The play was revived in 2010, this time bringing Denzel Washington and Viola Davis to the stage as Troy and Rose. The revival was nominated for ten Tony awards and moved Washington so much that he vowed in 2013 that he would adapt the play for film, something Wilson always wanted, but never saw in his lifetime, as he insisted on having a Black director who could understand the nuances of portraying a Black family. The film finally debuted in 2016, with Washington and Davis reprising their stage roles.
Fences is, of course, about fences. There’s a literal backyard fence being built, but this film is concerned about fences of the metaphysical variety: the ones we erect to keep people in, and the ones we build to drive people away.
So too is there the specter of being systematically and institutionally fenced in. Troy Maxson is a 53-year-old who works himself to the bone as a trash collector in the 1950s, and his bitterness at America as a Black man growing up in the early 1900s has left an indelible mark on him. After being denied the right to play Major League Baseball–years before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947–Troy is resentful of his country’s racism, but also at the progress other Black people have made after him. (It’s heavily implied Troy was passed over for the League because of his older age, not race, but Troy, refusing to acknowledge this possibility, throws numerous digs at Robinson that he’s a better player.)
Although Troy later becomes the first Black man allowed to drive the garbage truck, Troy is unable to bask in this small victory. He feels like a caged man, a man who was denied what rightfully belonged to him, and as a result, he often lashes out and even actively undermines his family. With a mentally ill brother, two sons who want to pursue careers he thinks are frivolous, and a dutiful wife he nevertheless somehow feels trapped by, Troy only sees fences, both at home and in the world.
This generational tension between Troy’s experiences versus the world slowly changing to allow Black people to participate more in the mainstream dialogue is the underpinning of the whole story. Troy is in many ways the archetypal and old-fashioned father we’ve all met or experienced in our own families: the world he grew up in was one where you were expected to be an adult by your early teens and take on a menial job to provide for your family. His children are not necessarily a joy, but definitely a responsibility, and in return for providing for them, he expects “yes sir”s and a household that conforms to his ideals. Choosing to pursue the arts or an education over becoming a skilled manual laborer is unthinkable.
And therein lies the problem. Troy is irritated that his older son Lyons is pursuing a career as a musician, a job that Troy views as selfish and unsustainable. And Troy refuses to let his other son Corey play football, despite the implication that Corey would get a college scholarship with his skills. Troy seems unimpressed with the idea of Corey getting a degree, too, unable to see why it matters when Corey is still black. As a result, he actively sabotages Corey’s chances at college and causes an insurmountable rift to open between them. Troy–unable to see his own destructiveness–defends his actions by saying he’s trying to protect his sons from the failure and disappointment of being a black man out in the world, but underneath all that is the idea that Troy’s bravado simply doesn’t allow for his sons to supersede him.
And then there’s Rose, played luminously by Viola Davis. Rose is an endlessly patient and kind woman, skilled at soothing Troy’s anger and mending bridges enough to have a sit-down dinner. It’s Rose who first asks for the backyard fence, and Troy’s friend Jim muses that she’s using it as a way to keep her family from breaking apart. Rose is witty, beautiful, and the image of a perfect housewife and mother, and Troy, despite likely his best efforts, ends up treating her terribly. From an outsider’s perspective, it’s easy to see that Rose and his sons are easily the best parts of Troy’s life, and yet he’s incapable of appreciating what he has over what he feels he has lost.
Fences also broaches the subject of madness and trauma. What happens to those who suffer from trauma, as Troy’s brother Gabriel does, when people erect walls so as not to acknowledge them? And what about Troy? The film opens with Troy spinning a tall tale about how he won over his pneumonia because he dueled with the Grim Reaper himself. As the film carries on Troy begins to drink more as he becomes increasingly convinced the Reaper is stalking him. Unlike Rose’s desire to use the fence to keep her family together, Troy reiterates several times that he sees the fence as a way to keep the Grim Reaper out. While the film makes clear that Gabriel was damaged in the war, it’s left up to the audience to question who is really “damaged.” Gabriel, an all around gentleman who’s considered mentally ill, or Troy, the man whose own demons cause him to destroy those around him?
Thanks to Wilson’s screenplay, Fences’ dialogue is incredible. It’s often quick and rhythmic, the easy back and forth of barbershop talk or a jazz melody. In its most valuable moments–often in the hands of Viola Davis and Jovan Adepo–it’s sweeping and devastating, and the entire cast does an amazing job of bringing the words to life. Adepo and Russell Hornsby are terribly underrated as Troy’s sons, and they’ve both crafted the look that’s needed for this family drama to succeed–equal parts hopeful, starved for affection, and on the defensive. Both actors portray their characters as determined men who share one thing in common; they’re both afraid of their father.
The cinematography itself is rather unremarkable, constrained, and at times even confusing. When Lyons is first introduced, we see him from the back as a black silhouette in the doorway as Troy’s monologue of fighting the Grim Reaper plays in the background. You’re led to believe, then, that Lyons is to be the main antagonist of the film, a literal lion that the family will have to contend with. It’s a beautiful way to introduce a potential villain, and yet, it ends up being pointless foreshadowing as the worst thing Lyons does is ask for ten dollars. We figure out quickly that the “lion” of this tale is actually Troy, so I do wonder what the point of that framing was.
In keeping with the play, the cinematography confines the audience mainly to the kitchen and backyard, with the camera mostly kept at eye level rather than panning around too much to show the neighborhood or sky. I personally am not a fan of adaptations that don’t expand and still make you feel like you’re watching a play, but I can see how severely limiting the scope of the film may arguably be the point. For 2.5 hours we’re trapped with Troy in his own home, which creates its own sense of discomfort, and perhaps makes you more inclined to even sympathize with him wanting to break away. (Although for the record, I mostly did not, and crowed when Rose finally dragged him for all he’s worth.)
Notably, there is a time jump at the end of the film, and we see the family after Troy has passed away. The family bonds, Gabriel plays his trumpet to “open St. Peter’s gate,” and the clouds literally part to let sunlight shine down on the backyard. The specter of Troy–described by Corey as “a shadow you can’t get free from”–is gone, and the camera finally pans up to let us see the sky.
Fences is about a fence within a fence within a fence, and Troy is at the center of it all. The most heartbreaking conceit of Fences is that Troy is so embittered over his own lack of success that he’s incapable of allowing others to thrive. While the damage of America’s systemic racism on Black families is clear, it’s Troy’s own hubris that ends up being the most destructive force within his own home. For his family, the most insurmountable fence ends up being Troy himself.