Troy's fence will be hardwood, not pine. Durable, like he is; straight, unshakable. He wants it to be eternal, to keep death at bay.
Troy will be king inside that fence, monarch and master of a postage-stamp plot of concrete and weeds and bare earth. He holds court on a weathered stoop, a pint of liquor in his hand, a laugh and an old story always at the ready.
A weathered baseball hangs by a cord from a scrawny tree in the yard. Sometimes Troy picks up a bat and taps at the ball, gently hitting it, a shadow of former glories. He was something else when he played in the Negro Leagues. And he'll say so to anyone who stops by. He hit seven home runs off the legendary Satchel Paige. He could've made the Majors too, if blacks hadn't been barred back then. Even now in the 1950s, after Jackie Robinson has broken the color barrier, Troy believes that "a colored guy has to be twice as good to get on the team."
"Why don't you just admit that you was just too old for the Majors?" his wife, Rose, tells him, a smile lurking under the surface. She doesn't have time for her husband's might-have-beens. Rose is interested in the now. She's grateful for Troy's job as a garbage man, which pays the bills. She's grateful for his booming voice and outlandish stories, grateful for their 18 years together. And she's especially grateful for their boy, Cory, who plays high school football.
Rose has been hounding Troy for years to build the fence. She wants it just as much as he does—but perhaps for different reasons. "Some people build fences to keep people out, and other people build fences to keep people in," Troy's friend Bono tells him. Rose is in the latter category.
But no fence can keep people in if they don't want to be kept. No fence can keep out the pains and trials of the world. And no fence can keep death away forever.
Sometimes fences do more than mark our spaces. Sometimes they do more than keep in the things we love and keep out the things we don't. Sometimes they separate us, too. Sometimes the very people we most want inside are the same people we lock outside the gate.
[Note: Spoilers are contained in the following sections.]
We must begin with Rose here, truly Troy's better half. She has devoted her life to her husband, through sickness and health, for better and worse.
"It's not easy for me to admit that I've been standing in the same place for 18 years!" Troy bellows at her.
"Well, I've been standing with you!" she bellows back. "I gave 18 years of my life to stand in the same spot as you!" Rose has poured herself into her husband, giving sacrificially to support him in every possible way.
Troy's character is more contradictory. He can be callous, ungenerous and, at times, almost wicked. But those negative traits are perhaps unfortunate offshoots of Troy's indomitable spirit. He rails against a world that gives him no quarter, he scrambles to make a living in a time and place when it wasn't easy, particularly for a black man who never learned to read. He preaches the virtues of diligence and hard work and he insists that his boys—Cory and an older musician named Lyons, whom he had with his first wife—follow suit. He resists racial prejudice, successfully petitioning to become Pittsburgh's first black garbage truck driver.
Troy eventually makes a big mistake that leads to a baby—a girl whose mother dies in childbirth. Even though Troy and Rose are barely speaking to each other at that point (Troy confessed the affair to Rose sometime before), he begs his wife to take the child in and help raise her. Rose, after a pause, takes the child from Troy and holds her in her arms. "You can't visit the sins of the father on the child," she says. "From right now, this child's got a mother."
Rose is a woman of strong religious conviction. We see elements of her faith throughout the home, from a picture of Jesus that hangs over the stove to a depiction of the Last Supper in the dining room. She talks about a cake she plans to take to the church bake sale and, in a time of crisis, we see her surrounded by other women in a church as they pray for her. She wears a cross around her neck.
Troy sometimes gently sneers at his wife's piety, at one point calling out "preachers looking to fatten their pockets." But he invokes plenty of religion, too. He talks about how he worked out a deal with the "devil," paying him $10 every month for the furniture in his house. "I wouldn't sold my soul or anything like that," he quips. "But I got my furniture." The allusion grows more somber and pointed when he talks about his own father. "I knew why the devil never got him, 'cause he's the devil himself."
Then there's Troy's brother, Gabriel. Doctors put a metal plate in his head after he was injured in World War II, and he's been a bit off ever since. Gabriel thinks he battles "hellhounds" on the streets, and he often tells Troy about his experiences in heaven: St. Peter gave him "big, fat biscuits," and Gabe claims to have seen Troy's name inscribed in the Book. He carries a beat-up trumpet with him everywhere, "So St. Peter can hear me when it's time to open the gate."
Much of Fences could be seen as a spiritual struggle between Troy's higher and lower natures. He rails against death in angry monologues, and he says a dark shadow inside him is that of his father (who, again, he compares to the devil). Sometimes, though, sunshine streams down into Troy's narrow lot, offering symbolic hope of salvation: At the end of the movie, his yard is unexpectedly bathed in golden light.
Troy tells a story about how when he was 14, he was fooling around with a 13-year-old girl. Troy's father caught them in a compromising position and began beating Troy—not to punish the lad, Troy reveals, but because "he wanted the girl to himself."
Troy and Rose sometimes flirt, suggesting that he'd like to get more intimate. Early in their relationship, when Troy tells her that he isn't the "marrying kind," Rose responds, "If you weren't the marrying kind, you get out of the way so the marrying kind can find me."
Bono talks about how sometimes restless men go "searching out a new land." Sometimes that means they might bounce from place to place, but often it means going from woman to woman.
Troy is not such a wanderer, at least at first. In the opening act, he admits to buying a girl a drink, but only to be friendly. After a while, though, it's clear that he's no longer just buying drinks. He's having an affair with another woman (Alberta, whom we never see). And when he tells Rose about the trysts—and the baby that is a product of them—he refuses to stop seeing the other woman. "She gave me a different idea," he tells her. "A different understanding of myself. … I can't give that up."
Rose is furious, and rightfully so. "Don't you think I ever wanted other things?!" she thunders. "Know other men?! "You're not the only one who gets wants and needs. … I buried them inside you. I held you, Troy. You was my husband. I held you." She stays with Troy in body, but something in their relationship has been broken. When Alberta dies and Rose agrees to take in Troy's daughter, she says, "From right now, this child's got a mother." Then she adds, "But you're a womanless man."
We see Cory without a shirt and Troy in his underwear.
During a fight about Alberta outside, Troy roughly grabs Rose's arm. Cory sees it, storms out of the house and pushes Troy away.
That moment presages a much bigger confrontation. When Cory wants to push past Troy—who's sitting on the stoop outside the house—to get inside, Troy refuses his son passage until Cory says "excuse me." The squabble escalates to the point where Cory picks up Troy's baseball bat and begins threatening his father with it. "You gonna draw back that bat on me, you're gonna have to kill me," Troy says. Cory does draw back, and Troy snatches the bat and presses it against Cory's throat, choking him. He then pulls back, towering over his son, who's cowering on the ground. Troy pokes him in the shoulder and the stomach with the bat and threatens to smash his face with it in a show of force and domination.
We hear about how Troy tried to beat up his own father when that man tried to rape a 13-year-old girl; his father then turned on Troy and beat him until his eyes were swollen shut. Troy left home and never returned, confessing that he hopes his dad is dead. He then talks about how he spent several years as a petty thief, eventually getting shot by one of his victims before Troy killed him. "Went to the penitentiary for 15 years," he says.
Alberta dies off screen. Cory throws a football helmet.
Crude or Profane Language
Characters use the n-word nearly 30 times. There's one partially enunciated s-word as well, along with perhaps 40 uses of "h---." Other profanities include "a--," "d--n" and "p-ss." We hear "g--d--n" four times. Gabriel is labeled "retarded."
Drug and Alcohol Content
"You gonna be drinking yourself to death," Rose tells Troy as he sits on his stoop, swigging a pint of booze. Troy spends a great deal of the movie drinking on that stoop. He's drunkenly singing a favorite song there when he gets into his climactic fight with Cory. Troy drinks elsewhere, too, at one juncture hanging out in a lonely bar, nursing a glass of something when Bono comes by for a visit. (Troy often successfully encourages the man to drink, but not this time.)
Other Negative Elements
After his injury, Gabe received benefits from the government—money Troy appropriated to buy his house. For a while, Gabe lived with him, but he's moved out and now lives elsewhere in the neighborhood. Troy feels guilty about the whole affair, but Rose says he shouldn't: Gabe simply wanted to live on his own, and Troy took care of him for a long time. She often suggests that Troy should put him in a "hospital"—something that Troy refuses to do for much of the movie. But he finally does commit his brother, a decision that becomes yet another source of friction between Troy and Cory.
We hear a great deal about the persistent racism in 1950s Pittsburgh. Troy, who believes he was barred from the Major Leagues because of his color, refuses to let Cory talk with a college coach, believing that Cory will only be hurt and betrayed. Troy calls his white employers "crackers."
There's talk of gambling and "playing the numbers." Someone's thrown in jail for cashing other people's checks. Loaning money becomes a source of family friction.
Fences, originally a play by August Wilson, won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and a Tony Award in 1987. And like its main character, this story is full of contradictions.
It takes place in a rough-hewn neighborhood in Pittsburgh, but there's a certain Grecian majesty about it all. Its characters are blue-collar, hardscrabble folks without much education. Yet the language—as stark and as brutal as it can be at times—is filled with a vibrant, pulsing poetry. And even though its dialogue can be harsh and its protagonist can be a monster, Fences has some important things to say.
Troy shows us a divided soul. He wants to be a good man but often falls pridefully short. And in so doing, it reveals some of some of life's most painful paradoxes: The times when we don't love the people in our lives as they deserve to be loved. The times when, in our desire to help our children, we hurt them instead.
It's a cautionary story, sure, and a wincing one to watch. But maybe in its own, twisted way, it's a story of redemption, too. We're shaped by the people we know and love. And even when that love is twisted somehow, through sin or circumstance, we still may salvage something. Something to treasure. Something that helps us grow.
And maybe wound-filled stories like this one can help us learn to forgive the ones who hurt us so horribly, to understand that maybe, all along, they were hurting, too.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Denzel Washington as Troy Maxson; Viola Davis as Rose Maxson; Stephen Henderson as Jim Bono; Jovan Adepo as Cory; Russell Hornsby as Lyons; Mykelti Williamson as Gabriel; Saniyya Sidney as Raynell
December 25, 2016
March 14, 2017