Column: ‘Fences Is An Intense, Must-See Movie’

January 3, 2017

[Opinion column written by Glenn Fubler]

Denzel Washington has done a masterful job doing his third film as Director, as he revisited the celebrated work written by August Wilson, “Fences” – which won major awards when first presented on stage in 1987. Denzel plays the main character –Troy – in this Pulitzer Prize-winning opus; a role he did in the Broadway reprise of the play, back in 2010, when he won a Tony. He secured most of that cast for this movie, which opened on Christmas Eve.

Fences is one of ten plays written by Wilson, which seek to capture something of the journey of African-Americans, over ten decades, and like any good literature, they successfully capture a universal theme. Denzel has the benefit of using the actual screen-play of the late August Wilson and remained true to the script.

The power of his performance and that of Viola Davis are palpable. She plays the role of Rose, the wife – for over 18 years – who is the ‘cooler’ for the mouthy Troy as he turns the family’s back yard into a ‘Bully-pulpit’; especially on Friday evenings. That’s when he and his ace-boy Bono retreat to a pint of Gin, lubricating the story-telling.

Wilson was primarily a poet and Denzel comfortably handles the riffs and rhythms as Troy; an illiterate but very skillful story-teller. The script is set in the ‘50’s in the industrial town of Pittsburg and we get a sense of the ‘green sprouts’ that later evolved into ‘rap’.

An underlying universal theme centres on how we as humans use our power, or the seeming lack of it. Troy’s father was a product of the brutal sharecropper system that impacted generations emerging during the post-slavery era.

With eleven children, the father was abusive to his entire family and Troy found his own power, rebelling at 14, resulting in his living on the streets through his teens. This led to his involvement in petty crime and a subsequent involvement in an accidental death, leading to imprisonment for 13 years.

Troy in his 20’s used that imprisonment to transform himself; turning the seeming lack of power into a platform to move forward. It was there that he developed a sense of self-discipline and where he found his significant skill and passion for baseball.

It was in prison that be begins a life-long friendship with Bono [Stephen Henderson] as they end up working together on the garbage trucks of Pittsburg for most of two decades. It was meeting his new wife Rose soon after prison-release that seems to reinforce that personal self-discipline.

However, over time, Troy lets that sense of empowerment, slip –‘.. the devil made me do it’. He is seduced into hanging on to resentment engendered by being a leading baseball star in the Negro League, but never getting the chance to make it in the Majors.

Giving in to bitterness, Troy spends time dismissing the abilities of the likes of Jackie Robinson who broke into the Majors, when things began to open up. Troy was making the mistake that Martin Luther King warned us about; that is ‘..driving down the road with our eyes firmly fixed on the rear-view mirror’.

However, that said, Troy did find his power when he used the opportunity of a staff meeting with the City Commissioner and eloquently made a case for blacks being able to drive the garbage trucks rather than only loading them. He became the first in the city to receive that promotion.

Nevertheless, even with those steps forward, Troy became the victim of his own unresolved anger. He experiences guilt for using the disability payment from his brother Gabriel, who had returned from WWII, shell-shocked, to help pay off the mortgage.

The accumulated resentment hampered Troy’s relationships with his two sons: Lyons [Russell Hornsby], the older brother from another mother, was a musician who Troy never took time to hear perform. Cory [Jovan Adepo]was the high school football star who Troy refused to allow to be recruited for a College scholarship – with the justification that Troy didn’t want his son to be disappointed by those white-folk, as he had been.

Of course holding on to resentment stokes a sense of powerlessness which results in ‘acting out behaviour’. This arguably is the reason for an act that shakes the 18 year relationship that Troy had enjoyed with Rose. However, in a powerfully eloquent retort to her husband, Rose accepted that she may have ‘given up too much of her power’ in an effort to save the family. However, she uses that occasion to pivot and affirm her sense of self.

Troy had unconsciously re-enacted the abuse of power that his father had visited on him. In one of the last scenes, Rose intervened with her son, Cory. She helped Cory overcome the seductive temptation to maintain his resentment for the injustice of his father – Troy – and claim his power so that he could move forward.

Fences is an intense, must-see movie. The film reminds us that barriers –fences- are often thrown up by ‘life’. However, if we forget to be mindfully aware in the moment, we are likely to erect our own fences.

- Glenn Fubler

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