It's been a while since I've seen a movie with as much language as the new film version of August Wilson's play "Fences."
Or as much characterization. Or so many characters so easy to identify with because they're so achingly real. The work's tragic hero is Troy Maxson (performed by Denzel Washington in a film he also directs), whose strength is ultimately his weakness and whose heart lies close to his mouth. He speaks his truth on all occasions, whether its end is loving or hurting those forced to listen -- except for a single concealment that will destroy his life's foundation.
While we're not likely to love all he does, especially his behavior toward his son, the character is so strong -- so well conceived and written by Wilson and so piercingly
enacted by Washington -- and so sympathetic that when his wife Rose, the other major figure in addition to his son Cory, bruised by Troy's broken strength, defends her husband to Cory, we want him to see it her way.
You father was so hard on you (and sometimes wrong-headed), she says in effect, because he was trying to make you as strong as he was. He wanted to give you the best of himself. Watching, we want the now grown-up and disaffected Cory to forgive Troy, or at least forgive his intentions. Cory is not having it. In a fine portrayal by Jovan Adepo, the couple's son is now a Marine and appears to have grown into a bit of a hard case himself. You can see him nearly shudder over his struggle with a conflagration of opposing feelings on the day of his father's funeral after he declares his intention to absent himself because it's his last chance to say no to an overbearing Dad. Doing the right thing doesn't come easy here, just as nothing ever came easy for Troy Maxson.
The play is set in 1956 in the industrial city of Pittsburgh. Troy works hauling trash for the city's department of public works. That by itself is a step up from the Deep South rural poverty into which he was born, and to which his own father abandoned the family, after demonstrating to his children some home truths of the dog-eat-dog world they were forced to inhabit. Troy is still a boy when he runs away, suffers, turns to crime, and eventually finds his way to a baseball career in the Negro leagues.
But time, and the love of Rose (Viola Davis), and a decent close-to-the-bone life purchased by his daily grind behind the city's garbage trucks do not mellow Troy. He is painfully aware -- how could he not be? -- of the opportunities open for others that were never open for him.
"We have Jackie Robinson now," his friends tell him.
But Troy was judged too old to be given a chance at major league -- i.e. white -- baseball after Robinson broke the color line.
I've never seen this play on the live stage. Some reviewers say they prefer stage productions to the recent film, but I can only judge by what I saw on the screen and what I saw was more than enough to urge others to see it.
Wilson, who died in 2005, is arguably the master playwright of his generation. Among his works is a series of plays about African American families set in each decade of the 20th century. Wilson himself wrote the screenplay for a film version of "Fences."
A fence -- not to mention a wall -- is a powerful symbol for a social drama. In "Fences" Troy demands his son's help to complete the long-delayed project for a garden fence. But harder jobs, the work of human relationship, intervene. Troy's obstinence in refusing his son permission to play high school football, after the boy has attracted the attention of a college scout, brings on a crisis in the father-son relationship. Incredible as it may seem to a contemporary audience, Troy cannot believe that college will help a black man get ahead.
"Things are changing," Rose protests.
But Troy, who argues stubbornly that everything has always been against him, that he "was born with two strikes" -- poverty and race are good guesses -- does not believe in change.
The year is 1956. Rose, we know, was right, though events both then and now have shown how rocky to the road to a race-blind society remains. But Troy is also right that change, or opportunity, never came for him.
So the fence we see Troy ultimately laboring to complete can bear various interpretations. For one thing, it appears to be a fence built to withstand a cavalry charge. Made of hardwood and painted white, it's a beautiful physical object, though its rigidity suggests the mindset of its maker. Intended to expand Rose's garden, the fence raises a question posed by one of the film's characters: "Fences can be made to keep things out, or keep things in."
And the image that lingers in my thoughts after the film's end is Washington's Troy standing stiffly with a cocked baseball bat, declaring his readiness to meet "Mister Death."
August Wilson's plays about black American life throughout the 20th century demonstrate that while everybody carries some some burdens through life, African-Americans are carrying more than their share of weight. Troy is a tragic figure, like the warrior kings of ancient days who sought to die on a field of blood. And like the kingly heroes of Greek tragedy, the cause of his fall lies in something he did. Life might not be fair, plays such as "Fences" seem to say, but you are still held to account for your deeds and will pay the price the gods demands.