Denzel Washington is obviously one of the greatest actors of all time. Not just one of the greatest actors of color but the greatest of all time. Whatever stratosphere the best actors and actresses in the history of humanity currently occupy, Denzel sits loftily on a cloud higher. In the latest movie he directed and acted in, Fences, he shows us why this is true.
Fences is a movie based on a play depicting the life of a working class black man in America back in the 1950s. Set in the town of Pittsburgh, Troy Maxson (played by Denzel) is a has been baseball player who never made it to the big leagues. Having survived a brutal childhood where he was beaten to the pulp by his own father who tried to rape his girlfriend, Troy moved to the city of Pittsburgh where he engaged in delinquent acts, impregnated the first girl he met in Pittsburgh, spent 15 years of his life in prison while missing out on the childhood of his first child, Lyon. After making it out of the penitentiary, he meets Rose Maxson (played by Viola Davis) with whom he fathers Cory.
The movie engages the life lived by black families in the 50s when civil rights were not yet a thing for African Americans. With his athletic abilities hindered by existing social norms and extra-legal conventions, Troy was prevented from becoming the baseball star he could have been by racist structures which would not allow black men from playing professional sports. Having a knack for spicing up stories, it is hard to fully determine if Troy was as good as he claimed but with his friend Bono averring what he said about his qualities, it is safe to assume so. This explains how bitter Troy was about things in his life.
But more than just looking at race and class, Fences highlights the toxic masculinity in black homes. Here you have Troy, a father who dedicates his life to providing a roof (technically he did not. His brother’s compensation from war did) and three square meals to his family. Having done this, Troy feels entitled to dictate what career and life his teenage son must live. When Cory was being recruited to play college football, Troy furiously resented it, pointing to his failed sporting career as enough evidence to settle for trade school. With a son around the age where teenagers begin to assert their agency, Cory and his dad clashed several times about where his life was headed. This bubbles to the point where he gets physical with his own son.
Troy’s relationship with his wife seemed a little convoluted. For 18 years, he was the man who took care of his family, gave every dime of his salary the minute he had it to his wife and constantly serenades her with the most beautiful of flattery. So it becomes a bit shocking when Bono pulls Troy over in one scene to confront him about his cheating on his wife. Troy concedes he is doing the wrong thing, goes into the kitchen to talk to Rose and momentarily makes the viewer happy. And then he drops the bombshell. He is having a kid with another woman.
The dialogue that ensues is one of the most poignant scenes in the movie. It involves a man who thinks 18 years of struggling to make ends meet and seemingly being static is enough reason to cheat with another woman because in that moment, he feels like himself. This is where a form of black masculinity prevalent in most communities gets highlighted upon. The type that thinks all it ever does is to give and give to the family and thus is legitimized to get away with whatever it does. But men like these forget that they take a lot from their family too. Especially from their wives.
Rose Maxson reminds Troy that she was with him for the entirety of the period he claims he gave to his family, standing by him, resisting the urge to look at other women and giving up any dream she ever had. Rose’s rant is a powerful illustration of what most women go through. Women are not only takers in marriages. They give back just as much as they take, if not more, from relationships they find themselves. Rose plays the fa ma nyame (put it all in the hands of God) role when decides to stay with her husband and continue to try offering him the love he took for granted. Then again there is sadly that many things a woman of color can do in 1950 America.
The movie gets its name from Fences Troy was supposed to build around his house. Took him forever to do so but eventually he did come around to completing it. The symbolism of the fence around the house was that it was meant to keep his family together. Already with a kid from an earlier marriage who kept coming and going whenever he needed money and a mentally ill brother who was a casualty of war, Troy was the man who had to build the fence to keep the family intact. As Bono said to him, some people build fences to keep people out, others do to keep people in, Denzel struggled to keep them in. He lost the love of his wife after his extra-marital affair, lost his concubine during child birth and became estranged with Cory.
The most tear-jerking part of the entire movie was in the last scene when Gabriel, Troy’s brother, who keeps having visions of hell and heaven comes running into the backyard of the Troy’s family with his trumpet after the death of the former. After making screeching noises a couple of times while trying to blow and remind St Peter of his brother’s arrival, he is finally able to pull it off and in classic Hollywood tradition, the right morose music is played which the skies golden up and light shines through the backyard with the Fence!