“People build fences for two reasons; to keep people out, and to keep people in.”
Don’t get it confused; Troy Maxson, the lead character of the play/film Fences is a good man. Which; in human parlance (as I so often quoth) is another way of saying he’s deeply flawed. He drinks too much, spends too much time talking about how the white man doesn’t like to see a black man do good and spent way too much time (most of the film actually) building a simple fence his wife has been asking about for years.
But he’s a good man.
Fences is based on a 1983 play written by August Wilson. Original premiering on Broadway in 1987 and closing in 1988, the play featured James Earl Jones as Troy alongside others, and then, it was revived in 2010 featuring Denzel Washington in the titular role, which he carried over to the film.
August finished a screenplay for the critically acclaimed play since 2003, but couldn’t reach an agreement with the studio on choice of director. August wanted a black director because; ‘It’s not about the color of his skin, it’s about the culture’.
Denzel directs and stars in this masterpiece, his third behind the camera. He says ‘Scott Rudin brought the screenplay to me seven years ago, and when I heard it was a play I was doubly interested. ‘Can I do the play first?'”
Troy reeks of bitterness and gin. Every chance he gets, he complains about how his skin color kept him from making it into Major League Baseball; in spite of his excellence in Negro League Baseball, a fact echoed by his first son Lyon (Russell Hornsby) in the movie’s closing scenes;
“You gotta take the crooked with the straights’, that’s what papa used to say. He used to say that when he struck out. I seen him strike out three times in a row, and the next time up he hit the ball over the grandstand.”
Troy talked a lot; as men who drink as much usually do. In one scene he tells the story of a wrestling match he had with the devil, and how he fought the devil to a standstill. His listeners don’t argue with him, but the looks on their faces give the impression they’re used to his tale-telling. But, as we learn later in the movie, man knew what he was talking about.
Fences is a close-up, and sometimes uncomfortable look at a man and how he can’t get better than his circumstances, and the irony of how sometimes, those same circumstances are of his own making. In the opening scenes Troy is having a conversation with his long-time friend Bono played by Stephen McKinley Henderson. Troy, a garbage man asked his boss a simple, yet uncomfortable question for that time, 1950s Pittsburg;
“Went to Mr. Rand I asked him. Asked him ‘why’. ‘Why he got all the…white mens driving, and the colored lifting. Told him, ‘Whatsamatter; Don’t I count? Think only white folk got sense to drive a truck?’”
He’s told to take his complaint to the Union, probably thinking he was going to get fired. Turned out he’s complaint is valid, and he’s promoted. He becomes the first black garbage truck driver in Pittsburg at the time – and he didn’t have a driver’s license.
Troy feels guilty; the house he lives in with his family was bought with his brother Gabe’s disability fund after he got half his head blow away in war. Played by Mykelti Williamson, Gabe is the spiritual core of the film which is interesting; he’s brain damaged.
A lot of Troy’s strength comes from his wife Rose played with great intensity by the great Viola Davis. One thing that sobers me constantly in the movie is how Troy, anytime its payday comes home and surrenders his money to this woman without a fight. When his son Lyon comes over and asks to borrow ten dollars, Troy refuses to give him – but says nothing when Rose takes out the ten dollars from his pay and hands it over to Lyon. And when Lyon returns to pay back the loan and Troy refuses to take it, he hands it to Rose. He proclaims his love for Rose every chance he gets; but that doesn’t stop him from…
Fences is about choices and relationships – and really, about fences we build around ourselves for different reasons. My favorite scene comes in at 40:37, when Troy and Rose’s son Cory (Jevon Adepo) summons the courage to ask his father a bold question;
Cory: Can I ask you a question?
Troy: What you gotta ask me? Mister DeWicker’s the one you got the questions for.
Cory: [pause] How come you ain’t never liked me?
Troy: Like you? Who the hell says I gotta like you? What law is there say’ I got to like you? Wanna stand up in front of my face and ask a damn fool ass question. Talking ‘bout likin’ somebody. Come here boy when I talk to you.
Cory walks up, Troy smacks him in the chest
Troy: Straighten up, goddamnit! Now, I asked you a question. What law, is there say’ I gotto like you?
Troy: All right then. Don’t you eat every day? Answer me when I talk to you! Don’t you eat every day?
Troy: Nigga, as long as you’re in my house you put a “Sir” on the end of it when you talk to me.
Cory: Yes, Sir.
Troy: You eat every day?
Cory: Yes, Sir.
Troy: You got a roof over you head?
Cory: Yes, Sir.
Troy: Got clothes on your back?
Cory: Yes, Sir.
Troy: Why you think that is?
Cory: ‘Cause of you?
Troy: [chuckles] Hell, I know it’s ’cause of me. But why do you think that is?
Cory: ‘Cause you like me?
Troy: Like you? I go outta here every morning; I bust my butt, putting up with them crackers every day ’cause I like you? You’re about the biggest fool I ever saw. It’s my job. It’s my responsibility. A man, is supposed to take care of his family. You live in my house, fill your belly with my food, put your behind on my bed because you’re my son. Not because I like you – ‘cos it’s my duty to take care of you, I owe a responsibility to you. Now let’s get this straight, right here and now before it go any further – I ain’t got to like you! Mr. Rand don’t give me my money, come pay day, ‘cos he like me. He give it to me ‘cos he owe me. Now, I done give you everything I got to give you! I gave you your life! Me and your Mama worked out between us and liking your black ass wasn’t part of the bargain! Now don’t you go through life worrying about whether somebody like you or not! You best be makin’ sure they’re doin’ right by you! You understand what I’m sayin’?
Cory: Yes sir.
Troy: Then get the hell out of my face, and get on down to that A&P!
Talk about intense.
The film does feel a little hemmed in; the entire movie you see a backyard, a living room/dining area, a bedroom and street in front of house maybe once or twice – but you’ll probably only notice that on your second or third viewing if you make it that far. Chances are you won’t notice; the dialogue fills the head and heart and doesn’t live space for much else.
At the end of the film, Rose talks to a reluctant Cory about his father and a little girl he brought home one day, and her closing line sums up Troy Maxson and really; what each and every one of us should aspire to do with our lives;
“And if the Lord see fit to keep up my strength, I’m gonna do her exactly how your daddy did you. I mah give her the best of what’s in me.”
Which is why I can say loudly; Troy was a good man. Or maybe he wasn’t, depending on your perspective. But he did the best of what he knew how – which really is all any of us can hope for.
We all are put on this earth to do the best we can; and maybe he could have been more; maybe his failure to get into the Major League had more to do with his age and less with his skin – maybe. But Troy and Rose gave their all to each other.
Troy: It’s not easy for me to admit that I’ve been standing in the same place for eighteen years!
Rose: Well, I’ve been standing with you! I’ve been right here with you Troy! I got a life too! I gave eighteen years of my life to stand in the same spot as you! Don’t you think I ever wanted other things?
Fences is about hope, love, fear, anger, pain, frustration, how those things can take you and turn you into a carcass of what you were supposed to be. And yet it’s hopeful, brave and fearless. It’s about determination, faith –
And how sometimes, the fences we build to protect us also keep us away from the ones who love us. Troy unconsciously built fences between him and his family – and that cost him a lot.
But still, he made good in the end. And really, that’s really what any of us can hope to do. Do the things that count while we can.
See Fences. And take down some of the ones you may have built around you. Who knows?
PS: Hypocrite Alert.