Written by August Wilson
Directed by Denzel Washington
Starring: Denzel Washington as Troy Maxson
Viola Davis as Rose Maxson
Russell Hornsby as Lyons Maxson
Jovan Adepo as Cory Maxson
A historical view of a wonderful film
This review is for people who have already seen the film Fences. The review will mention areas of the story plot that someone who hasn’t seen the film might want to see on the screen for the first time. So, if you’ve already seen the film continue reading, but if you haven’t seen the film, I highly recommend it and perhaps you might want to read my review afterwards.
Fences – The play by August Wilson
This film is one of the few truly wonderful films in the theaters today. It is the story of Troy Maxson who is played by Denzel Washington, his relationship to a friend and his family. August Wilson’s plays were based on his experiences growing up in the Black community of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Troy Maxson’s father was a share-cropper in one of the states where Jim Crow segregation was the law. This meant that his father routinely did arduous work for a wage that kept him in continual debt. Education, as well as health care, were things that were almost unknown to those who toiled under these conditions. Troy Maxson was one of 11 children that his parents raised.
We might consider that when we look at the enormous wealth that exists in this country, one of the foundations of this wealth came from the labor of Black people. During the times of slavery about 75% of the income of this country came from slave labor plantations.
After the Civil War the cloths people wore came from cotton picked by Black people. Some of the dirtiest jobs in the industries of this country were performed by Black people. So, when we speak of the lives of Troy Maxson and his father, we are talking about people who played an invaluable role in creating the enormous wealth that has always existed in this country.
Troy Maxson found the conditions of Jim Crow segregation to be intolerable, so he moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Here young Troy found no opportunities for a young Black man to make a living, so he resorted to a life of crime. He then served fifteen years in prison. Upon leaving prison he became one of the best baseball players in the Negro Leagues. However, the so-called big leagues preferred to hire mediocre caucasian players rather than some of the best players in the Negro Leagues. Faced with this reality Troy saw how he could become a sanitation worker or live a life of crime where he would most likely return to prison. He chose to become a sanitation worker.
After working for a number of years as a sanitation worker, Troy asked a supervisor why all of the truck drivers were white and all of those who dumped the trash were Black. He eventually received a promotion to become a driver.
Seeing these events we might also think about the events that were unfolding in the mid 1950s. After the Second World War hundreds of thousands of workers went on strike and shut down entire industries. Employers reaped super-profits during the war and workers felt that they deserved an improved standard of living. Those strikes forced employers to recognize unions and workers won major concessions.
Also in 1955 Rosa Parks refused to sit in the back of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Her action, as well as the organizing of a local chapter of the NAACP led to the 381 day Montgomery Buss Boycott. This action forced Montgomery officials to reverse the law requiring Black people to sit on the back of the buss. The strike wave of those years as well as the Montgomery Buss Boycott might have influenced Pittsburgh city officials to give Troy Maxson a promotion to become a driver.
In another scene in the film Troy’s son Cory had the possibility of a football scholarship at a university. In order to qualify for this scholarship, Cory needed to cut back on his hours working at a local supermarket in order to play high school football. Troy was stubbornly opposed to Cory cutting back on his hours at the supermarket.
Troy had been a star baseball player and this only led to disappointment when it came to making a living. He felt that the scholarship for his son would lead to a similar disappointment. Clearly, Cory and his mother Rose adamantly opposed Troy’s position on this issue.
There was a parallel debate on this issue between Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois. Washington was the leader of the Tuskegee Institute and he advocated for teaching students the manual arts that would qualify them for the only jobs available Black people in a racist nation.
W.E.B. DuBois was a founding member of the NAACP and he felt that Black people should have the right to pursue their education to the highest level. He argued that the task of education, “is not to teach men to become carpenters, but to teach carpenters to become men.”
We might keep in mind that Washington received substantial support from several of the capitalists of his day. In his later life, the government placed DuBois on trial for his political activities. The charges against DuBois were dropped after a trial that lasted nine months. We might also consider that it was the Civil Rights Movement, as well as the example of Malcolm X that made Booker T. Washington’s arguments largely irrelevant.
Malcolm X also lived at the times portrayed in the film Fences. One big difference was that his parents were not only educated, but they were both followers of Marcus Garvey. Garvey was the leader of the largest Black organization in the history of this country.
In his autobiography Malcolm argued that it was fairly common for the Black community of Harlem, New York to live outside the law. Malcolm gave his reasons for why this was the case.
He said that when he attended school he was called the n—word so often, he thought that this was his name. When he told a teacher that he wanted to become a lawyer, the teacher responded, “that’s no job for a n—word, you’re good with your hands and you can become a carpenter.” As I’ve mentioned, this was a common idea in those days. So Malcolm became something similar to a corporate lawyer. He worked as a thief.
Because of the racist so-called “justice system” in this country, after Malcolm was apprehended his sentence was much longer because he was dating a caucasian woman.
While in prison, Malcolm educated himself and gravitated to the Nation of Islam. The NOA had a similar philosophy as Marcus Garvey and advocated for Black control of the Black community. However, one of the limitations of the NOA was that it refrained from political activity. Eventually, Malcolm developed disagreements with the NOA and formed an new political organization.
When we look at the life of Malcolm X, we can see how the problems portrayed in the film Fences can be resolved. In fact the title, Fences for me is symbolic of all the obstacles facing the Black community.
Malcolm believed that it was possible for Black people to become a part of an international movement aimed at liberation. He understood that Black people have the potential to organize a movement that can achieve real liberation. He wasn’t about teaching people about their oppression. No, he argued that when you teach people about their worth, their heritage, and their humanity, then you will get action.
I will end this review with a 1965 quotation from James Baldwin who had been inspired by the life of Malcolm X. This quotation not only gives perspective to the film Fences, it offers insight into the world we live in today:
“Power, then, which can have no morality itself, is yet dependent on human energy, on the wills and desires of human beings. When power translates itself into tyranny, it means that the principles on which that power depended, and which were its justification, are bankrupt. When this happens, and it is happening now, power can only be defended by thugs and mediocrities––and seas of blood. The representatives of the status quo are sickened and divided, and dread looking into the eyes of their young; while the excluded begin to realize, having endured everything, that they can endure everything. They do not know the precise shape of the future, but they know that the future belongs to them. They realize this––paradoxically––by the failure of the moral energy of their oppressors and begin, almost instinctively, to forge a new morality, to create the principals on which a new world will be built.”