Humans seem to have a propensity for building fences, which I have never really understood. Although many of them are physical structures in the landscape, there are also those very high fences built in the mind, which seem to be possibly the most dangerous.
Such are the Fences built by an African-American father Troy Maxson as played proficiently by Denzel Washington in the film Fences. This is a film which proves nurture will win out over nature, especially when a family is subjected to prolonged daily verbal abuse that is never redeemable. It is all about who we are as human beings.
Fences adapted from a play written for the theatre features overlong diatribes of dialogue, which in that tradition, are completely and utterly exhausting in delivery. Troy Maxson is an overbearing, really quite awful and angry man, who believes he’s God’s answer to everything. Larger than life when he chooses to be so, Troy Maxson can be over effusive with his jokes and laughter so thata viewers can be lulled into thinking perhaps he is really quite affable after all.
Troy is 100% sure the judgment he imposes on his family is right and that by withholding love, which we slowly learn is instinctive, he aims to bend them completely to his will. Troy Maxson is a man who has to win, no matter what the cost.
By and away the story of Troy Maxson proves the fences built in the mind are indeed restricting, because their aim is to limit imagination, trample on trust, to destroy dreams and worst of all, completely demolish hope, the one feeling in us all that promotes the notion that life or events can and will turn out for the best.
Don’t read any more if you don’t want spoilers.
Words help Troy Maxson win all his battles and the war that he alone is waging not only with himself, but also everyone in the circle around him. This includes his son by his first wife Lyons (Russell Hornsby) who constantly turns up to borrow $10, allowing Troy yet another chance to teach them all a moral lesson.
The playwright clearly wants his audience to gain some sort of empathy for the character of Troy, whom we learn was once a professional baseball player who reputedly loves his wife (debatable) so he offers us many views of this complex man.
Our understanding is that Troy never found fame or fortune. He was good at the game of basesball long before the lucrative days of celebrity, when people would pay handsomely to see and follow talented amateur players in any field of sport, or endeavour for that matter.
Troy Maxson is convinced however he failed because he is black. He’s so bitter and twisted about it that it has penetrated every aspect of his being and his life is spent taking his reality out on his own small circle of family and followers, relentlessly.
Every afternoon he and his best friend from his childhood and his daily work Jim Bono (Stephen Henderson) walk back to his house to share a pint of Gin and have a few laughs together before Bono goes home to his wife. Sometimes it can turn ugly, especially if others enter the circle. When this happens Bono either tries to jolly his friend or just shrugs and walks away.
Troy is a garbage collector living in a poor neighbourhood where he constantly proves to himself he is very clever. By never asking for a promotion at work, suggesting to his boss he could be the one to break down the barrier between white and black people by allowing black trash men from becoming drivers, he puts himself in the frame and in the other man’s mind.
It’s 1954 and there are signs all over the country the days of prejudice based on the colour of a man’s skin are beginning to be over and when Troy is the first to achieve that honour, we also understand why being a driver becomes the win win highlight of Troy’s life.
The lose lose aspect of Troy’s life’s story is supplied in spades when we find out Troy took his brother Gabriel’s $3,000 disability payout from the military and purchased his own house. Now a lot older, the guilt about his actions fester away at his core being along with other issues, like long acting poison.
Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson) had half his head blown away in World War II and so these days his capacities are limited.. He is however in so many ways the wise one, having moved out of Troy’s house to live down the road with a sympathetic neighbour whom we never meet, and very soon we all know why.
Troy Maxson is at war with the world. Nothing will deviate him from the path he has chosen and the only way for Gabriel to not be further traumatised is to remove himself from Troy and his daily circle, only landing back in it when he’s feeling up to the challenge. Troy is his brother after all and he loves him unconditionally.
Troy’s sensitive son Cory (Jovan Adepo) is certainly no match for his father’s twisted cruelty. He cannot penetrate their relationship through love, because Troy makes everything about himself. When Cory challenges his father and asks if he ‘likes’ him, we receive an ear bashing like no other, one we find as Cory does, impossible to bear.
Cory wants to play sports particularly baseball and to achieve a scholarship and to better himself by doing so. However his father will have none of it, insisting he resign from the team and stay at home with him every Saturday building a physical fence between their house and the neighbour only a few feet away.
Troy takes everything from his family – his love, his trust and loyalty. He destroys hope of their forgiveness, the one act of love we can willingly choose to give one to the other.
His pride rules him like a rod of iron and played so poignantly by Denzel Washington you really feel it, festering away in every fibre of his being; Troy’s a poor excuse for a man, one who claims to love his family but proves constantly that he doesn’t like them and in many ways, hates them too.
The parallels you can draw to American politics about the character of Troy to the American president through analogy, right now are indeed frightening.
Troy Maxson is a bullying father figure for all those people who surround and support him everyday. He is the Emperor on high no one can seemingly touch; the one convinced he would always win out because of his sheer dominance over the people in his circle and their psyche.
He is physically a ‘big man’ too and believes he’s smarter and better. There is a point where I dare you not to wish someone will step up to the plate and take him out, such is his overwhelming force of will.
As for those around him on a daily basis, well they continue to willingly carry out his bidding because they have had their self-esteem stripped from them completely; totally destroyed over a very long period of time; they’ve not known it’s happening until it was far too late.
Individually they are wedded to their captor’s wishes, having developed a strategy to survive in their own way, the controlling and abusive relationship they have with him. However this in the end only makes them totally dependent on Troy the abuser.
Today psychologists call this condition Stockholm syndrome (after a real life event you can read about here) and those who do recover are often traumatised as they remember their symptoms and behaviour while with their captor.
Troy’s wife, the aptly named Rose loves Troy no matter how much he abuses her, even if it is only through words; words are how the world works.
While there are clearly some lines Rose, a truly outstanding performance from Viola Davis, won’t let him cross. However, they were all a bridge too far for me. I found the whole experience of this movie completely agonizing.
One of the most noteworthy features is when Troy goes off to relieve himself of the burden of the daily battle by seeking refuge for both his mind and body with a woman other than his wife. We never meet her thankfully, but discover that her home and being with her becomes his refuge from the loud, horrendous world of his own creation.
When she dies in childbirth knowing full well his own wife Rose is a good woman, he brings the baby home for her to raise as her own. He well understands she won’t visit the sins of the father on the little child and that she will raise Raynell as her own.
Rose is a Christian woman through and through; she would have to be, having put up with Troy and his twisted tortured body and mind for as long as she has to date, while witnessing him strip every ounce of loving from their son. She’s weary of the world and it is no wonder.
An acting tour de force, from my point of view the only good aspect of this movie happens for Raynell when her father dies. She is only six years old and although we are not sure how far Rose will go in carrying out his wishes in the future, we can live in hope that over time she distance from his spiteful meanness, which will eventually allow her to heal, although never really forget.
His father’s funeral brings Cory home to see his mother for the first time since his father threw him out at sixteen years of age to fend for himself. He comes because he wants to tell his mother in person he won’t be attending.
Cory enlisted in the services and has become a Marine and for him now truth matters. It’s wonderful to see him befriend the little girl who is his half sister, showing her the kindness innate to his character. But there it is, sadly Rose instead of understanding, makes her son feel guilty by insisting he has to be there. We are left to think this is out of some misplaced idea of showing her, or his late father, respect.
Sadly respect, the condition of being esteemed or honored is not one Troy Maxson earned during his lifetime.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2017