As a child, like most children I presume, I did not think of my parents as real people. They acted instead as my comforters and my providers, the people I stretched out my hands towards when I needed something. I was nearly out of the house before I considered what they might have given up; what dreams they may have sacrificed or brushed aside in the 60’s, the ’70s and ‘80s to provide my sister and myself with the best life that they could. For us, they moved through life often joyful but at times enraged; continually propping up a marriage that was long past its expiration date. Though I lived in their story with them, for the first part of my life, I observed as an outsider, labeling them as who they presented themselves to be instead of who they actually were. I, their eldest child, was guilty of not really seeing them in the full scope of their humanity.
With his ten plays in The Pittsburg Cycle, playwright August Wilson mastered, narrated and documented the African-American experience throughout the twentieth century in the United States. From “Gem of the Ocean” to “Radio Golf,” each play set in a different decade revealed new challenges, joys, and nuances of the Black experience. August Wilson forced you to see; to bear witness to Black lives, by presenting full and complete human beings in his narratives. Something I was unable to do with my own parents until my early adulthood.
It has been a long road for the film adaptation of August Wilson’s sixth play in his Pittsburg Cycle, and it seems now that the timing has never been so ideal. Set in the 1950’s, Wilson’s critically acclaimed “Fences” comes sparkling to life on the film screen with Denzel Washington in the director’s chair and starring as patriarch Troy Maxson; a middle-aged garbage collector who, despite living a respectable life, struggles deeply with internal dissatisfaction, defeat, and bitterness. Not to be outdone by Washington’s commanding performance, Viola Davis holds her own, exploding onto the screen as his wife, Rose, a long-suffering but hopeful woman, desperate to keep her family together amid racial turmoil, financial issues and dreams deferred.
Incredibly faithful to the original play which first debuted on Broadway in March of 1987, through Washington’s lens, Troy and Rose’s story gets expanded and stretched out spectacularly as if August himself were walking the audience through the narrative. Both Washington and Davis have mastered (having acted in the play in the 2010 Broadway revival) these characters – the dichotomy of what it means to be Black in America during this particular moment. To be at once joyful and deeply tormented.
“Fences” does not shed its theatrical roots. The film’s locations are limited, and it opens with Troy’s unrelenting monologue for the first forty-five minutes or so of the movie. Troy is larger than life; his near constant ranting against the racial injustices and the wrongs that have been done to him are a thread that continues throughout the film’s narrative. It’s both wearisome and familiar, watching a Black man well past his prime, puff and peacock day in and day out, demanding to be heard. While Rose and Troy’s best friend Bono (Stephen Henderson) have learned to live with the constant posturing, it’s Cory (Jovan Adepo), Rose and Troy’s teenage son who challenges his father. Cory pushes back against the path his father lays out for him, representing a new generation of Black people desperate to move forward despite the restrictions still placed on their lives.
And yet the film adaptation of “Fences” is a nod to Rose more than any other character in Wilson’s celebrated story. Though she’s in the background at first, cooking, or mending, adding in her two cents here and there, every major plot point in the film circles back to Rose. Every single one of Troy’s impulses and life choices ricochets on to her, demanding that she hold all of his burdens along with her own on her shoulders. August Wilson’s female characters are always central to his plays and Viola Davis’ portrayal of this woman whose unconditional love just might not be enough to heal her family is heart wrenching.
“Fences” itself is not just a name of the film, nor does it represent the fence that Troy is perpetually building in his backyard at Rose’s request. Instead, it symbolizes the places that Black people have been closed out of; for Troy, it’s major league baseball; for his son Cory, it’s new and better opportunities; and for Rose, it’s the life she thought she’d built from her sacrifices. It’s also the places we hold dear to our hearts, our safe spaces, ones that we attempt to hold our families in and keep the pain out of. It’s that same sort of barrier of protection that my parents built that prevented me from seeing them for who they truly were until they no longer existed. If you’ve seen “Fences” in any capacity, not much will surprise you about this film. However, the stunning acting and August Wilson’s timeless words will captivate you again and again.
“Fences” opened in select theaters on December 16, 2016, before opening everywhere this Sunday, Christmas Day.
Watch the latest trailer for “Fences” below:
Aramide A Tinubu has her Master’s in Film Studies from Columbia University. She wrote her thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a Black cinephile, bookworm, blogger, and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can read her blog at: www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami