I enjoyed some down time this afternoon, engaging in one of my favorite leisure activities…watching movies. Up today was film four of nine in the Best Picture nominated category, Fences.
Fences stars Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen Henderson, Jovan Adepo, Russell Hornsby and Mykelti Williamson. This drama, directed by Denzel Washington, is rated PG-13, for mild language and a few suggestive comments, and has a run time of 2 hours and 19 minutes. Fences was nominated for four Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actor for Washington and Best Supporting Actress for Davis. Viola won in her category.
This movie adaptation is based on the 2010 play by the same name. Five of the actors in the play, including Denzel and Viola, reprised their roles in the film.
Troy Maxson (Washington) is an African American raising his family in a poor neighborhood in 1950s Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Married for 18 years to Rose (Davis), Troy makes a living as a sanitation worker, toiling alongside his friend and neighbor, Bono (Henderson).
Life is difficult for Troy, and not just because of the long hours of manual labor. On his own at age 14, Troy struggled to survive as he sought to get a handle on the world. He turned to stealing as a young man, fathered a son, and spent 15 years in prison before meeting Rose. His passion was to play professional baseball, but coming late into the game, Troy couldn’t compete with younger white players.
Disillusioned and bitter, Troy settles into a working class job and raising Cory (Adepo), the son he has with his wife Rose. His older musician son, Lyons (Hornsby), and mentally handicapped brother Gabe (Williamson), come in and out of the family home, adding to the stressful dynamics there.
And it is a household under stress. Troy is not a happy man, convinced he missed out on opportunities. He feels wrung out by life, and stuck. His relationship is strained with his older son. And wanting his younger son to have more than he does, Troy pushes him too hard, not allowing Cory to be recruited for college football. Disappointed in his own attempt at a sports career, Troy squashes his son’s hopes and alienates him.
Proud, and possesive, of the small house he has managed to buy, due to compensation for the brain damaging war injury his brother suffered, Troy spends his Saturdays working on a wooden fence to enclose the tiny backyard. The fence becomes symbolic of Troy’s life. As his friend Bono says, “Some people build fences to keep people out, and other people build fences to keep people in.”
Troy is doing both. And a secret he is concealing threatens to constrain his life and damage his relationships even more.
This was another excellent movie, that was sometimes difficult to watch. It wasn’t because of a war zone where soldiers were slaughtered. No, Fences had moments in which despair created a war zone where Troy and his family were the casualties.
To watch Fences is to watch what a life lived with regret looks like. Denzel Washington gave a poignant performance as a man who longed for more but sacrified his desires to responsibilities. And of course, responsibilities aren’t bad. But giving up on dreams in exchange for a safe and decent life can be soul numbing, and ultimately damaging.
Viola Davis was amazing as Troy’s long suffering wife, Rose. One of the movie’s most powerful scenes occurs when Troy tells Rose, “It’s not easy for me to admit that I’ve been standing in the same place for eighteen years!” With tears, and snot, running fown her face, Rose cries out, “Well, I’ve been standing with you! I gave eighteen years of my life to stand in the same spot as you!”
That moment was pivotal for Rose. And heartbreaking. Even in this day, it is so rare to find a couple who can share the journey in a way that supports and encourages both, rather than one sacrificing who they are for the other. Rose gave up on her dreams and hopes too. She felt as stuck as Troy did.
Fences, like Manchester by the Sea, does not have a neat and tidy ending. Rather it left me with much to think about, and an ache in my heart for people who are struggling in their lives with regret and disappointment. There was however, a surprising scene of hope, and Gabe, the mentally challenged brother, got to shine. It seemed very fitting that the character in the movie who most tended to live simply and in the moment, offered most deeply from his big heart.
And that made me tear up…and then smile.
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