‘Fences’ Is Yet Another Sip of Lemonade for Black Women
Fences is incredibly moving. It’s a powerful, powerful movie, and it hit me harder than any of the major awards contenders this year (besides, of course, Moonlight, which is the Beyonce of filmmaking). Directed by Denzel Washington, who also appears in the movie as its lead, Fences offers a startlingly detailed look into the Black relationship – and touches upon the destructive nature of Black masculinity, particularly when it involves the Black woman.
Yes, Fences made me want to shout for the Black girls – but not in the way you expect.
Set in the 1950’s, the movie is the story of Troy Maxson, a Black man living during a very severe time for people of color. Troy is tired. He’s seen some things in his life – hell, at his age, he may well have been a child when slavery had only recently been abolished. His father left him at a very young age, and was never much of a father anyway. This has shaped Troy’s personality, colored him in ways that may be rather unpleasant.Fences is very heavy on dialogue and light on story, but this is one of those rare times where that works in the movie’s favor. Adapted from the iconic play by Black playwright August Wilson, you got the sense during the movie’s two-and-a-half hour duration that director Denzel was so enamored with the material, he decided to keep more than he cut – and, as I said earlier, that was a good decision. The dialogue in Fences is so well written, it’s almost hard to accept that the man who originally invented these characters is, tragically, no longer with us. It touches on race relations, gender politics, and even toxic masculinity. It portrays Black people with tropes we have seen before, but the characters are so well written and portrayed that it works.
And the acting? Oh, God. Having seen Fences, I believe Denzel Washington was robbed a Golden Globe for his performance in the film. If he doesn’t get nominated for Best Actor at the Academy Awards, it will be one of the biggest snubs in Hollywood history. Denzel is so amazing in this film that by the end, I was convinced he was Troy Maxson. He lived, breathed, and felt the character. Every acting choice was powerful; every line reminded me of a Black man in my life; every look containing a thousand more words than the ones coming out of his mouth. Denzel’s performance is one of the best of his career. I’d honestly forgotten he was this good.
As for Viola Davis: she’s not quite as good as Denzel – I don’t think anyone on this planet is as good as Denzel at what he does – but she is fantastic, and she deserves awards for what is sure to be a star-making performance. She doesn’t have as much emotionally to do as Denzel does, but what she does have, she works with. She fits comfortably into the character, and her range startles me – going from powerful badass in How to Get Away With Murder and Suicide Squad, to troubled housewife. It’s pretty awesome.But bringing up her character brings me to what I adored most about Fences: the story.
If you don’t want to know what happens in the film, there are spoilers ahead. I think you should see it before ruining it for yourself, but if you choose so – here’s a fair warning.
Still here? Alright. Let’s discuss.
Rose Lee Maxson, Troy’s wife of eighteen years (played expertly by the magnificent Viola Davis) is put through the ringer by her husband. He puts their son, Cory (played by Jovan Adepo) through hell when he attempts to play football and stray from the path his father has carefully laid out for him. But Rose is so busy trying to get Troy to let Cory play football that she doesn’t notice that her husband is slipping away from her as well. Abruptly, mid-movie, Troy reveals the startling truth: that he has been seeing another woman, and that she is pregnant with his child. When Rose demands to know why, his only defense is that she “makes me feel free”.
I don’t think the movie means to paint Troy as the bad guy – but I do think it means to have a commentary on the fact that sometimes, straight Black men can forget about the intersections within Black liberation and only fight for themselves. Troy prattles on about race in America throughout the movie. He seems pretty woke. He talks about how the racism on football teams will keep his son from ever truly prospering, and he is right. He talks about his disadvantages as a Black person, and he is right.But there are a few areas in which he misses his mark. He continually treats his wife as lesser than him, not even allowing her to hear some of the conversations he has with his coworker, Bono (it was the 50’s, sure, but this is ridiculous). He restrains his son, fearing what he will do, because of his past mistakes. He talks to Rose about loving and forgiveness, all the while cheating on her and so reprehensibly taken with the other woman that he can’t even muster an apology. By the end of the movie, I thoroughly disliked Troy Maxson – and that’s the genius of it all.
Straight Black men have consistently jumped through hoops to fit into the box of white-dominant societies. They tried their best to be the “man of the house”, feeling they had to compensate for the women in their lives and that it was their job, their purpose in life to provide for their families. While that may be the case, Fences demonstrate that a lot of the time, Black men are so dead set on proving their manhood that they destroy themselves and stairways, built by Troy and her husband, ultimately “lead to nothing”.Despite all that Troy has done to her, Rose still sticks by her husband. She sacrifices her hopes and dreams to wrap herself in a marriage that isn’t one hundred percent what she wants, but is stable enough to last. She cares for his child with another woman, waiting until the last second to let him know that she is no longer his wife (which, by the way, was the most badass, ‘boy, bye’ moment ever). She cares for their son and pushes for him to follow his dreams. She even pushes Troy to do what he wants to with his life at his job.
Though Troy was the narrative focus of this movie, I believe the true unsung hero here is Rose. She shows that Black women were often the secret heavyweights of Black families, juggling several things at once and giving up their lives to protect and nurture what they held dear. Black women in the 50’s made calculated choices to bring themselves the best possible happiness, and held onto it ferociously. And the second Rose senses that happiness with Troy is no longer possible, she wastes no time in leaving him.At the end of the movie, Troy is dead and his family gathers to celebrate his life. But you get the sense that there is much left unsaid – and that Troy might not be all that worthy of celebration. There is a gray area, and with Black cinema that was missing for so long that seeing it here made me smile.
Fences isn’t a perfect movie. It’s a little overlong, and some of the talking scenes go a little further than they should. But what it gets right, it gets brilliantly right – and one of those things is how even in the 50’s, Black women were being served lemons and making lemonade.