Sunday, July 30, 2017

FENCES (2016): Desperate Lives and Hopes

Probably most of us started off with great dreams only to see them dashed at some point or another.  Yet it’s difficult to imagine what a black man approaching the age of fifty must reflect when raising his family in a large metropolitan area back during the 1950s.  The plot of Fences centers upon such a character, and for the most part tells the story honestly.

Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington) works as a garbage man during this period in Pittsburgh.  Troy grew up in the south and moved north to escape his abusive father.  At one time he was a promising baseball player, but his baseball days faced interruption due to a stint in prison.  And by the time he got out, he was too old to play in the big leagues which will only then beginning to recruit black talent.

Troy in some senses is like a Walter Mitty character.  He often makes up the stories he tells for the amusement of others, but there are instances when he seemingly believes what he is saying.  And because he believes his own lies, he can never truly apologize for his mistakes.  On the other hand, he is a realist understanding that he is going to pay a great price for the mistakes he does make.

Troy has a wife and two sons.  As the film begins, his wife Rose (Viola Davis) has been married to him for eighteen years.  Rose is used to Troy’s antics and loves him deeply.  Troy, in his own way, loves Rose in return, but that does not prevent him from having an affair with another woman resulting in this woman becoming pregnant.  The woman that Troy had the affair with dies in childbirth after delivering a healthy daughter named Raynell.  Troy convinces Rose to help him raise the young girl.

Troy also has a brother named Gabe (Mykelti Williamson), who Troy deeply cares for.  Gabe suffered head injuries during the war which leave him extremely simple in the mind.  Troy for the most part does what he can to help Gabe out.

The two sons, on the other hand, are ambivalent in their attitudes towards their father.  Both respect him greatly, but both also fear him because Troy can be a hard man.  Lyons (Russell Hornsby) was born to another woman Troy knew before he went to prison.  Whenever Lyons comes to visit the family, Troy rightly guesses that he is there only to borrow money. 

Troy’s relationship with his youngest son, Cory (Jovan Adepo), is much more complex.  Cory is in high school and shows promise as a football player.  Troy is not supportive of Cory playing football and instead insists that he find a job and work for his money.  Troy appears unable to show affection for his youngest son, despite the son doing very little wrong.  Yet Troy constantly demands that Cory show him the ultimate respect.  Troy challenges his youngest son, and sometimes the challenges border on bullying.

Troy dies of a heart attack while swinging at the baseball he attached to the end of a rope.  Throughout the movie, he swung at the baseball as if to take out his frustrations regarding his thwarted dreams.  Raynell by then is around five-years-old.  Rose lovingly looks after her.  Lyons is facing imprisonment for passing bad checks.  Cory is by then a member of the marines long after having a falling out with his father.

It is an intense film much like a prior film Washington starred in called A Soldier’s Story.  And while Fences consists almost exclusively of a black cast, it symbolizes the plight of almost every man frustrated by what life provides.  The confrontational scenes Troy has with his sons are particularly effective because the lessons he teaches are not always pleasant ones.

It’s obvious to anyone seeing the film that it was based on a play – a play by August Wilson.  Sometimes plays do not always translate well into film, and this occasionally occurs in Fences.  Troy’s occasional references about demons and death would probably come off better on the stage.  And the ending of this film with the remaining characters looking up at the sky while the sun peaks through the clouds is forced symbolism.

Like its chief character, the 138-minute film contains both greatness and significant flaws.  With the exception of the acting of Viola Davis, the film is for the most part a one-man show starring the film’s director, Denzel Washington.  Through the acting of its main star, there is seldom a single moment you do not see the character’s drive and spirit.  The personalities of the two sons are never fully developed and are mainly present to playoff of Washington’s role.  The character of Gabe provides some pathos as well as comic relief.  Rose is the only character in the film that truly has the gumption to oppose Troy in anything.

Yet as Rose mentions towards the film’s end, Troy is in so many respects a big man.  While he limits himself by his inability to always see the truth (thus the film name Fences), he also drives himself.  There are only a few instances where he feels sorry for himself, and this never lasts long.  He lives with the consequences of his actions, and he does his best to pay his own way.

July 30, 2017
© Robert S. Miller 2017