3 Stars – Powerful
August Wilson was given the Pulitzer prize for his 1985 play Fences. When he was asked to write a screenplay to bring Fences to the screen he required that it be directed by an African American stating: “I declined a white director not on the basis of race but on the basis of culture. White directors are not qualified for the job. The job requires someone who shares the specifics of the culture of black Americans.” After his death in 2005 we waited for eleven more years until Denzel Washington both directed and starred along with fellow Academy Award winner Viola Davis. The result is a cinematic play powerfully telling the complex racial and poverty story of a middle-aged man over a decade of his life in the mid 1950’s to the mid 1960’s.
Set in Pittsburg we meet Troy Maxson (Washington) as he waxes eloquent with his fellow garbage-collector Jim Bono (Stephen Henderson) about the injustice of only white employees being drivers and the black employees have to do the heavy lifting. This conversation places us deeply into the pre-civil rights era where racial injustice was institutionalized. But we soon realize that it wasn’t just a play about race but it is also about patriarchal injustice as Troy both woos and dominates his wife Rose (Viola Davis) and brutally controls his two sons’ lives, Lyons (Russell Hornsby) and Cory (Jovan Adepo). This father dominance is quickly revealed as a multigenerational abuse which began when fourteen-year-old Troy was driven from his home by his father’s brutality, only to do the same to his seventeen-year-old son Cory. This father-wound is exacerbated by the poverty and injustice of racism.
The play-like film is set primarily within the backyard of a poor urban home where Troy is building a fence. Troy had purchased the property with his brother Gabriel’s (Mykelli Williamson) military compensation when his war injury left him impaired. Gabe’s injury caused a psychotic experience of having gone to heaven and helping St. Peter open the gates of heaven, which becomes a hopeful message within the larger story.
When Rose turns to her church, Troy turns to the neighborhood bar where he is seduced into adultery that not only isolates him from Rose and his son, but from his friend Bono. This living out of the biblical proverb that: “an adulterous woman will take your precious life” (Prov. 6:26) reveals both the power and consequence of sin.
The visual symbols of faith and family are woven throughout the film in ways that reflect the necessity of boundaries around us to protect us from the pain of life. As we watch Troy build a fence and build a life, we realize that both are incomplete and disappointing. From his anger that the “crackers” would not allow him to play professional ball because of his race, to the belief that he didn’t need anyone’s help, or to be liked, left him vulnerable in body and soul. That is an existential message worthy of contemplation by all of us.
- Using the analogy of baseball to describe his life, Troy explains to Rose that he was a man born with two strikes against him already. This double struggle of racial prejudice and economic poverty are difficult to overcome, but when you add a father’s abuse it seems like more than two strikes. What are you doing to help the poor, or powerless, or abused in this world?
- When Rose accepts the responsibility of raising Troy’s daughter from the adulterous affair, she experiences personal joy but at the same time cuts Troy out of her heart. What do you think that will do to the daughter’s soul?
- The claim that Cory makes when Troy will not let him play football even when he is being recruited by a college coach is that Troy does not want to see him succeed. Do you think that was his motive? Why do you answer as you do?