“Some people build fences to keep people out; other people build fences to keep people in.”
Fences is a film version of an August Wilson stage play which won both a Pulitzer and a Tony. (The screenplay was adapted by Wilson before his death.) Set in an African-American working class neighborhood in the 1950s it is the story of Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington, who also directs) and his family.
Troy is a hardworking man. He is a garbage collector, but he sees no shame in hard work that provides for his family. His wife Rose (Viola Davis) maintains their home. They have a teenage son Cory (Jovan Adepo) and an older son from earlier in Troy’s life, Lyons (Russell Hornsby). We soon see that there is a hard edge to Troy. He is responsible and expects others to live up to their responsibilities. He is hard on his sons when they do not measure up to his expectations.
There is frustration in Troy’s life. At one time he was a pretty good baseball player, but feels that “the white man” never lets someone like him succeed in sports. At work, all the truck drivers are white, but the blacks work the back of the truck. (When Troy files a grievance, he becomes a driver.) His life has been hard, but he feels that he has made a good life for himself and his family. So he is demanding of those who he is responsible for.
Because of the stage origins, the film has a number of extensive speeches. That may seem to make the film a touch preachy at times; however, those speeches are what makes the film interesting and thought-provoking. Many of them are very good expositions of the work ethic and the American Dream, even though for Troy that dream may be blocked off because of social realities of race.
One of the speeches he makes is directed toward Cory about “doing right by” someone. Cory asks his father why he never liked him. Troy responds “liking” doesn’t matter. Troy provides for him, that is what matters. He tells Cory not to worry about whether someone likes him, but whether they are doing right by him. While Troy rarely talks of racism (and mostly in regards to sports), we know that society is not “doing right by” Troy and people like him.
As the film progresses, we learn more and more about Troy. At the beginning he seems like a friendly, well-spoken, pillar of working America. Perhaps his job is low on prestige, but he approaches it with pride. He faces his responsibilities fully. But bit by bit we discover that Troy may be less than we have come to believe. For all his work ethic and responsibility, it seems that at his core Troy is unable to love. He may provide for Cory’s needs and encourage his education, it is never clear that he loves his son. He is affectionate with Rose and turns over his pay each week, but is that the same as loving her?
The Apostle Paul in his discussion of spiritual gifts includes thoughts about love that begins:
“If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.” (1 Cor. 13: 1-3, NRSV)
Those words came to mind for me as I reflected on Troy’s story. He is a steadfast worker, husband, father, and friend. But if he has no love, does all of that lose its meaning? All of his good qualities amount to much less than we first perceive because of his lack of love. Without that important virtue all else loses its meaning.
Photos courtesy of Paramount Pictures