MESSAGE IN THE MOVIES
Directed by Denzel Washington. Starring Denzel Washington, Viola Davis.
It is sometime in the early 1950’s and we are in the backyard of a black family living in the Hill District of Pittsburgh. The Second World War is over and most Americans are enjoying post-war prosperity. Most people of color stay just a little bit ahead of the curve, due to limited job opportunities. Such is the case for Troy (Washington), a 53-year-old black man who goes to work riding the back of a garbage truck alongside of his best friend Bono (Stephen Henderson); Troy hopes to advance someday to driving the truck, but the company currently is only giving that promotion to white employees. Troy lives from payday to payday, dutifully turning his earnings over to his wife Rose (Viola Davis) who gives him his weekly allowance. Friday afternoons are accompanied by Troy’s other best friend: a flask of gin that he picks up on the way home.
Troy’s life is filled with frustration, dashed hopes, and conflicted ideas about being a father to his two sons: Lyons (Russell Hornsby) and Cory (Jovan Adepo). Lyons is grown and living on his own; he dreams of being a musician (a profession that Troy disdains), and is always a dollar or two short. Cory is doing quite well with high school athletics and hopes to use his sports skills to secure a scholarship at a good college. Troy resents his son’s good fortune (since his own life’s dream of becoming a big baseball star never materialized).
Rose tries to hold her family together the best that she can. Her options are even more limited than Troy’s, but she makes the best of her situation through her deep love for her family and her participation in the local church.
The other family member that stops by on regular occasions is Troy’s brother Gabe (Mykelti Williamson), injured in the war and carrying a metal plate in his head. This injury has placed Gabe on permanent disability and filled his head with apocalyptic visions. At one time Gabe lived with Troy and Rose; now he is on his own, fiercely independent but more at risk.
Troy has a backyard project of building a picket fence in their backyard, but this task would best be accomplished by teamwork. Troy is a bully and lacks the self-awareness to change. Everyone around him sees him more truthfully than he can see himself. To coexist with Troy is to learn how to walk around in a minefield, or to learn how to leave.
Playwright August Wilson gives us these rich characters and allows us to observe them in beautifully written dialogue filled with humor and occasional joy, but haunted by the past and life’s inequities and challenges. Fences is a 1987 Pulitzer Prize winning play and Director-Actor Denzel Washington uses the cast from the 2010 Broadway revival in this film version; all of them have lived in these roles for dozens of performances and there is real life in this production.
Some may find this movie a bit too hindered by its stage origins, but I appreciate having a filmed version that respects the beauty of the spoken word. Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman did not need scenes added showing us Willy Loman out on his sales route; the off-screen drama that is a major part of Fences can stay off-screen, including Rose’s deep and abiding faith in God. Although this story is very sad, hope and rebirth do take place. The story is filled with deep compassion for its many characters and I look forward to revisiting this play again, letting it break my heart and renew my love for the spoken word.
Four halos: A tragic story filled with compassion and touched by faith.
Three pitchforks: Violent words and actions; brief swearing; suggestive dialogue; alcoholism; prejudice; infidelity.
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Rev. Bruce Batchelor-Glader
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