Denzel Washington Viola Davis Mykelti Williamson Russell Hornsby Jovan Adepo Stephen Henderson
This passionate tale about a black family’s experience at home and with the outside world is heart wrenching, enlightening, and funny. The film is the third iteration of an August Wilson story, which was a multiple Tony Award-winning play, first on Broadway in 1987 then revived in 2010, and now a film directed by Denzel Washington. He has played the role of the patriarch Troy in both plays and the film. Viola Davis played Troy’s wife in the 2010 play and again in the current film.
Troy is a very authoritarian father with a past that would predict his adult personality—maternal abandonment and paternal abuse. So Troy ran away from home when he was 14, and got involved in stealing. Eventually, he ended up being tried and convicted for murder, serving 15 years in the penitentiary. Soon after, he married and had a son, Lyons, but the marriage didn’t last, and the boy was brought up by his mother. Lyons has a conflicted relationship with his father now. Troy belittles Lyons’ playing in a band and not having regular employment, but grudgingly gives him money from time to time.
When Troy met Rose (Davis), he had gained steady employment as a trash collector, and he attributes her with helping him make something of his life. He reveres her, and she is a good foil for him, standing up to him occasionally, but mostly going along with whatever he wants. Their love for one another is apparent, but they have a son Cory (Adepo), and Troy continues the father tradition in their family of providing little reinforcement but much instruction and criticism.
Cory is in high school and doing well in football, but his father wants him to work instead of playing sports and going to practice. He even has a chance for a football scholarship for college. But here is where the negatives of authoritarianism and “the father’s sins being visited upon the children” rear their ugly heads. Troy tells Cory that he needs to learn a trade so he won’t have to be a trash collector. Cory is enraged (potently expressed by Adepo) by his father’s forbidding him to play football, sensing that Troy doesn’t want him to have what Troy missed out on.
These relationships between Troy and his children illustrate the mistakes of an authoritarian, but it also shows up as a drawback in Troy’s marriage. When he makes a major transgression, Rose lets him have it when he tries to explain how deprived he has been in sacrificing for his family. “You talk about how much you give, but you take too!” And her remarks emphasize his self-centeredness and his “bubble” in thinking he has been the only one wanting more in his life.
Eventually, the sins of the father are visited not only upon the sons but on the wife as well. Rose must rescue him once again, not that he doesn’t also pay for his mistakes. He is now persona non grata at home, and he learns the bitter lesson and outcome of failing to foster his relationships with his children.
Fences is impressive in its portrayal of an American family in the 1950s, their challenges and issues, and part of their history that got them to this point in time. It can’t quite overcome its “Broadway play” look, which is distracting at times, although this isn’t a major drawback. The performances of Washington, Davis, Adepo and the screenplay (still imminently current) more than compensate for any downsides.
A curious theme (to me) throughout this play/film is the theme of death. It comes up from time to time, the song “I had a Dog Blue” (which dies) is sung, but Troy dismisses death out of hand. He denies the eventuality of his own death, although after his own brush with it, the devil has become his adversary and we hear him challenging it right up to the end.
Fences: A way to keep things out and to keep things in.