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Watching Fences, we are reminded that Denzel Washington is one of the best actors working today. Look, it’s all but set in stone that Viola Davis is of the same caliber as Meryl Streep. But most people like Denzel because he is Denzel. It’s easy to forget that along with his immense charisma beats the heart of a nuanced and towering actor.
The movie is based on the August Wilson play of the same name. Washington directs and wisely sets aside any visual cinematic flares. Instead, he relies on the faces of his fellow actors and the strength of Wilson’s words.
Washington plays Troy, a garbage man, father, a husband, and black man in the 1940’s. One of the many facets about Fences is how it shows the psychological damage of being systematically beat down day after day because of one’s race. The fractures that begin to form in one’s belief of self and others.
Jim (Stephen Henderson), Troy’s constant friend and companion tells him “Times have changed Troy. You just came along too early.” His reply is simple and powerful and filled with a quiet rage, “There ought never have been a time called ‘too early’.” Jim and Troy share much together. They’ve done time together, they work together, and they just talk together. Jim is like a comforting blanket to Troy. He makes him feel big and heard. It’s telling that Troy doesn’t afford Jim the same courtesy.
Washington’s and Henderson’s performances are so natural you can’t catch them acting. The way they laugh at each other’s stories, stories they’ve heard a thousand times. There is an easy camaraderie that belies a common shared and lived experience.
Fences is not just merely a story about race; it’s a story about survivors of abuse. How people who have lived through abuse can visit it on others without fully realizing it. How abuse can damage you in ways more than physical. There has a been a lot of groaning about the obvious physical metaphor of the ‘fence’ meant to keep people out as well as in. But what is overlooked by many is this is an ingrained symptom of abuse.
Survivors often prefer isolation from unknown people and things while also craving company and closeness of those they know and trust. The relationship between Troy and his family is complicated. Troy is angry and bitter at times, a violent man. Most of his abuse is aimed at his youngest son Cory (Jovan Adepo). Cory is talented, driven, and smart. He’s being recruited by a university for their football team.
Troy cannot fathom this as an option. For a man told he is one of the greatest ballplayers of his time while also being told he can’t play in the majors because of the color of his skin, this path for a future is unthinkable. Troy can not wrap his mind around the idea of a world that would give a young black man a scholarship for playing football, much less a world that would give that black man a job.
Instead Troy bans Cory from playing football. He demands he go down to the A&P (the first large chain grocery store) and get his job back. For Troy having a job, now, a reliable job, now, money now, is the thing. There’s no future in believing you’re going to make it. He can’t. He’s black. And also because he’s Troy’s son.
Washington and Adepo don’t talk to each other as much as they try to assert their masculinity to each other. Take the infamous moment where Cory asks his father “Why don’t you like me?” The scene is fraught with possibilities. Adepo show’s Cory’s fear and confident facade begin to slip away as Washington’s Troy edges closer and closer to him. They never come to blows, in this scene, but the threat of violence is in Troy’s laugh. Just as much as the fear of violence is in Cory’s stance.
Abuse is many tentacled beast that infects everything it touches. It’s like a corrosive acid of the soul. Sometimes you don’t even notice it’s been rotting until someone tells you. One of the underlying themes of Fences is Troy’s false bravado. He acts bigger than he is because he’s terrified of how small he is. Or even worse how other people might view him as weak.
Cory is not Troy’s only son. There is also Lyons (Russell Hornsby), a son from a relationship before Rose (Viola Davis). Lyons always seems to show up on Friday, payday. Troy for all his faults never turns Lyons away. He doesn’t give him the money, Rose does. Troy hands her the money from his paycheck and she gives ten dollars to Lyons. Troy can’t bring himself to give what sees is a handout. But he also can’t turn away his own flesh and blood.
Lyons is clearly in awe of his father. It’s clear he shows up not just to collect money but that he also wants to spend time with Troy. With every visit and request for money, comes an invitation to see Lyons play at a Jazz club. Troy always refuses. The hurt and desperation of even so much as a handshake is etched onto Hornsby’s features.
When Troy, Jim, and Lyons are sitting around drinking, Troy begins talking about his own childhood. Wilson’s dialogue is music, but like all music, it requires people to know the difference between quarter notes and whole notes. Washington knows his sheet music. He never feels sorry for himself, Troy can’t allow himself that. He talks about certain things in boastful way, where others would present them as things to be overcome.
“I left home when I was fourteen.” “Moved to the city, didn’t have no home, wound up down there by the river.” As Lyons becomes horrified at the childhood reality of his estranged father he also realizes how times have changed. He really can’t fathom the idea of walking that long. Why couldn’t he hitch a ride? ”I walked to Atlanta, two hundred miles. We didn’t have no cars then.”
Rose watches, as she always does, from off to the sides. The centerpiece of the story is Rose and Troy. How they relate to each other after 18 years of marriage. How they put up with each other. The joy and happiness they have brought to each other. As well as the hurt, pain, and betrayal they have visited upon each other by forces both beyond their control and forces from within.
Davis and Washington are mesmerizing to watch. Their scenes together are so effortless, so natural, so lived in, all the artificial storytelling trappings of the play fall to the wayside. These moments border on modern day cinema verite at it’s finest.
With friends and family Troy is treated with some respect and reverence. With Rose, he is treated as an equal. He treasures this. She knows it and does her best to keep his feet to the fire. But when Troy confesses something he’s been hiding she breaks the bond. She can’t take it anymore. Troy has finally pushed her too far.
His excuses and plaintive explanations are those of a caught child trying to evade a punishment he knows he deserves. While others would have coddled him, Rose refuses to let him wither out of his own accountability. It’s not just an affair, which other characters have been alluding to throughout the movie, but it’s the knowledge that Troy has another kid. One that isn’t hers.
“I never wanted a half family.” She cries. Rose herself is a product of a home with more than one father or mother. “It was always Your Dad or MY Mother…”. Again the fractures of abuse, this time systemic, show themselves. And it’s also here where we see Rose’s suffering from her own abuse. As she tells Troy, she believes his insides are rotted out, that nothing can grow in the blackness of his heart.
It is lucky for Troy he has his brother, Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson). Gabriel is a WWII veteran with a metal plate in his head. He is also possibly the one thing wrong with an otherwise perfect story. Williamson plays Gabriel as a little too broad and mannered. Yet there are times when he drops the affectations and allows the character to shine through.
Gabriel is meant to be the thing that shows us Troy is not beyond love. But the problem is he’s never given much to do aside from coming in and tell us how much he loves his brother, it’s a little off key from the other characters in the story. Washington and Williamson make it work but it’s a clear struggle as opposed to the effortlessness of the rest of the movie.
There will probably be much debate about the end. I think it fits perfectly with the remainder of the story. It’s a little bit magical, yes, but it’s not distractingly so. Gabriel blows his trumpet to the cloudy sky and the sun shines. There will doubtless be people who think the movie is saying we must forgive our abusers. But the movie is doing no such thing. It’s saying that our abusers are individuals and must be judged as such. When a person is a part of your life for some eighteen years and change it’s hard to just write off their very existence as just tertiary flotsam.
Fences is a masterclass of storytelling. That it feels staged speaks to the people who refuse to let themselves be enveloped by Wilson’s dialogue. Washington, Davis, and Wilson are American treasures. Fences proves as much and more.