Sins of the Father
A Film Review by Akash Singh
NOTE: SPOILERS OCCUR!!!!!!!
“In my dreams and visions, I seemed to see a line, and on the other side of that line were green fields, and lovely flowers, and beautiful white ladies, who stretched out their arms to me over the line, but I couldn’t reach them no-how. I always fell before I got to the line.”
Viola Davis spoke those words on the Television Academy stage in 2015 and the power of those words being spoken by a black woman could be felt far beyond the ceremony at which it was spoken. That evening Davis became the first black woman to win the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series for her performance on How to Get Away with Murder. The historical note wasn’t lost on Davis, nor was the fact that she won her award for a role of a middle-aged, fiercely intellectual, and thoroughly sexual woman. Those roles are unfortunately few for women in general but they’re especially unheard of for black women. Davis followed Tubman with a note of her own: “The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity.” That it took until 2015 for a black woman to win that Emmy is an incredibly sad reminder that the progressivism of Hollywood is in large part anything but, an industry that applauds itself every time a single individual from a marginalized community is awarded a statuette. Beyond the Emmy stage itself and away from show business in general, Davis’s speech was a reminder to a wider audience that women of color face a world that forces them to overcome not just their gender, but their ethnicity as well in order to be accepted. For LGBTQIA women of color, the circumstances are even more dire. In Fences, that theme isn’t the prominent focus of the film, but the focus upon it could not be denied. The pain, the suffering, and the perseverance of Davis’s Rose Maxson becomes the film’s strongest backbone. Rose is the emotional core the audience is able to connect to, whose quiet bravery speaks the loudest and in a film so ubiquitous with the relationships of men, her story as a black woman is the one that stands out the most.
Opportunity. That word rings out throughout the film and in spite of there being no direct connection between Davis’s Emmy speech and Fences outside of Davis herself, her words ring throughout in a story set at the precipice of the Civil Rights Movement in 1950s Pittsburgh. Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington) is a man whose life has been defined by his identity as a black man, the opportunities that life afforded him, and the opportunities that slipped right by without even giving him a glance. Troy is, as the adage goes, a man of his time in all of the ways a middle-aged man could be expected to be. He works as a garbage collector from Monday to Friday. He comes home on Friday for a night off and then he builds a fence with his younger sun on Saturday. Church is on Sunday. But beyond being a working man with a wife and two sons, Troy desires to fulfill all of the expectations of a patriarch in the ways he thinks he should. He can’t. That he could be something beyond that escapes him, however, eluding him just like that baseball career he was so ardent to espouse. He’s convinced that he was never given a chance because he was black, because even a mediocre white player would be given the chance to play before he was ever allowed to approach the bench. There’s a truth to that, there’s a truth to the realities of racism in sports. Troy couples that reality with his own circumstances and to what degree that is reality is left unsaid. What is clear, however, is that Troy was never able to become that patriarch he never truly had, the one he always felt that he must become in order to be a man. Troy knows that if it were the matter of just his income by itself, he would never be able to afford to raise a family. That knowledge eats away at his being, endangering that sense of masculinity that became so toxic his own son would tremble when he heard his father’s feet walking through the house.
There’s a fence built around the black community in America that reminds them constantly of what lies on the other side, what they’re not allowed to have. Every time black Americans break the fence in some fashion or another, another fence is erected somewhere else as a reminder of the inequities that exist. Systemic inequities are not simply tied to slavery, which in the minds of many Americans wasn’t either that bad (the mythology of the “benevolent slaveholder” refuses to die) or was the last great horror this country forced upon its black populace. It wasn’t. The fences of slavery (both figurative and literal) turned into the fences of the Jim Crow. The fences of Jim Crow gave birth to the fences of mass incarceration. The fences of mass incarceration, in an eerily meta statement from the film, became the fences of police brutality. In August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, the titular fences are everywhere and not just in the boards Troy so ardently cuts with his younger son Cory Maxson (Jovan Adepo) with a fervent, religious obsession. For Troy, the fences represent the boundary he wants to set up against the Grim Reaper, a figure that haunts him from his terrifying childhood to the adulthood he is afraid would swallow him whole before he ever got the chance to become the man he believes he should be. For Rose, the fence is a way to protect her family and keep her loved ones close, the luxury of a fence that she did not have before. For Cory, the fence is representative of his father holding him back, a father he sees as being afraid that his son might prove to be better than him. There’s a truth to that because Troy at a certain point becomes so enamored with his sense of black masculinity that he erects fences all around himself, slowly pushing the people away that he sees as his responsibility but almost never values as individuals to be valued and kept close. He saw himself and the fences he believed to exist, but he never saw those same fences for his wife or for his son. The great crime he commits against Rose is a crime that he doesn’t see as being worthy of being labeled as criminal behavior because he was acting against the fences that were constructed around him. That those fences, same and similar, were constructed around the women he claimed to love was lost to him. The suffering of black women under black masculinity continued.
August Wilson’s Fences was first published as a play in 1983, the sixth play in a decology of plays collectively titled as the “Pittsburgh Cycle.” The decology explored the experiences of being black in America and Fences in particular garnered critical acclaim, winning the aforementioned Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award for Best Play in 1987. Wilson wrote the screenplay for his work before his death in 2005, a screenplay that had significant problems journeying to the silver screen because Wilson insisted on having a black director behind the camera. Wilson’s wish is posthumously granted in the form of Denzel Washington, whose work as a director is unfortunately the greatest weakness of the film. Washington’s charisma and angst before the camera is undeniable. His work behind the camera stifles the film’s own charisma, rendering the experience to be less cinematic than it was capable of being. In essence, the film doesn’t just unfold like a play (which is perfectly fine) but it feels less like a film than a play that is being filmed. When a play is performed, those limitations are understandable, an inherent paradigm of that specific medium. They make less sense in the context of a film, where Washington’s camera never really takes advantage of the wider scope that is at his disposal. The claustrophobia within the Maxson’s home is perfectly rendered as a thematic motif, but the camera remains constrained even when the claustrophobia isn’t constrained, as if Washington’s camera is fenced in itself. The constrain robs Fences of the true cinematic power that it otherwise would have been able to display but when the source material is so rich and the performances are such stunning portraits of perfection, it’s nearly impossible to not walk away from Wilson’s story and feel touched in some part of your soul. As Jim Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson) notes so astutely, some people build fences to keep people out and others build fences to keep people in. Fences may keep its full cinematic potential outside, but what it keeps in is nevertheless a true marvel to behold.
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Directed by: Denzel Washington
Produced by: Todd Black, Scott Rudin, Denzel Washington
Screenplay by: August Wilson
Based on: Fences by August Wilson
Starring: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis
Music by: Marcelo Zarvos
Cinematography by: Charlotte Bruus Christensen
Edited by: Hughes Winborne
Production Company(s): Bron Creative, Macro Media, Scott Rudin Productions
Distributed by: Paramount Pictures
Running Time: 139 minutes
Release Dates: December 16, 2016 (United States)
Image Courtesy: Collider
Every review from now on will have links to organizations who are in need of resources. Please contribute if you are able:
Syrian Refugee/Refugee Crises
Women’s Reproductive Rights