A father is a powerful man. He can be a great force for fostering strength, virtue, and godliness. He can also be a great force for pain, abuse, and grief. Troy Maxson of Fences is the latter.
It’s hard to even know where to begin with Denzel Washington’s Fences. Originally an award-winning play, the film retains much of that same format, with a very small cast and few sets to tell a character-centered drama. It’s a portrait of a working-class black man and his family in 1960’s Pittsburgh, and how that life has hardened Washington’s protagonist.
Troy is a tough guy. He knows what the white man, and life, does to him, and he doesn’t take it lying down. He calls his employer out on passing over black men for promotions. He berates his 34-year-old son for not being willing to work a hard job, impresses on his younger son the importance of choosing a practical career over his football dreams, and speaks to no end of the harshness of the world outside. Life is hard, but he’s supported by his wife Rose and his friend Bono, and things tend to work out alright.
At least, they do in the beginning. But we begin to see more of Troy as the film unfolds. Instead of a man who is always looking out for his family, we see a man who occasionally intimidates his children. He takes his problems home with him and takes those out on his family, too. And then, after speaking extensively to his children of obligations and responsibility, he does the seemingly unforgivable. He has an affair.
The way that Washington portrays the degradation of Troy’s character is riveting. Viola Davis’s performance is even more moving. Her heartbrokenness when this is revealed is by itself enough to win her an Oscar. The entire cautionary purpose of the story is delivered in one of the most emotional scenes I’ve ever seen on film.
(Warning: some spoilers are below)
Then comes the ending, however, which left me feeling frustrated and unfulfilled. After all of the terrible things Troy has done to his family, and being unrepentant of them all, the script attempts to justify them. After his death, Rose tells their younger son Cory “he meant more good than bad,” and even insinuates, in a Hollywood-esque fashion, that he’s gone up to Heaven. But we know good and well he didn’t mean more good than bad. He meant what he wanted, no matter what that meant for his family, and he says as much earlier in the film. To attempt to justify that behavior is dishonest and self-defeating.
It’s for that reason that I say this: if you are a survivor of abuse, you probably do not want to see this film. The acting is phenomenal, the dialogue poetic, and the character development near perfection, but the message of the ending is almost insulting to those people who have endured lives with men similar to Troy Maxson. I think the intention of the writers was probably to foster an attitude of forgiveness towards those who have wrong us, which is certainly biblical. But, as Rick Warren has said, you don’t have to compromise convictions to be compassionate.
Knowing that, it may come as a surprise to some of our readers that I am going to recommend this film to those who are not survivors of abuse, particularly men with families. Here’s why. As I write this, I saw the movie last week. I’m still about how selfish Troy Maxson was, how much he hurt his family, and how I want to do everything in my power to steer as far away from that as I possibly can. It has done something that very few films ever have: inspired me to be a better husband and father. This doesn’t mean I have no problem with the issues tied into the ending anymore; clearly I do. But, the impact of the film on me has been such that it was a very worthwhile experience to see the film, acknowledge where it goes wrong, but also learn a valuable lesson from it.
Fences is not a family-friendly film, at least in the traditional sense of the word. It contains a good deal of language (especially the n-word), the early part of the film contains a lot of innuendo, and there are adult elements that have already been mentioned. But it’s ultimately telling a story that many of us need to hear, even if fails to give that same value to other parts of its audience.