Rated PG-13. Running time: 2 hours 18 min.
Our content ratings: Violence 2; Language 5; Sex/Nudity 1.
Our star rating (1-5): 5
For he is our peace, who has made us both one,
and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility…
Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother” (this is the first commandment with a promise), “that it may be well with you and that you may live long on the earth.” Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.
Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington) might be illiterate, but he is no stranger to words, the spoken kind that is. From the moment we first meet this opinionated black man at work on a Pittsburgh garbage truck with his best friend Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson), our ears are bombarded by a veritable Niagara of words flowing forth from his mouth. He is an untutored master at telling stories and slinging insults. Had he been able to read, with his glib tongue he would have been a great salesman, a fit companion for Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman. Indeed, August Wilson’s Tony Award-winning play will remind you of Death of a Salesman, especially toward the end.
During the course of the interaction among the characters, we learn that Troy was sired by an abusive father in the South, leaving home while still a teenager. He served time in prison for killing a man he tried to rob; was a talented baseball player in the old Negro League, but was unable to make it in the major-leagues after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. He claims it was racism, but it also might have been due to his age—he was just born a few years too soon.
However, Troy’s belief that racism was the cause has poisoned his mind so much that he refuses to allow his youngest son Cory (Jovan Adepo) to continue playing football, even when the youth tells him that a scout for a university intends to come to town to see him play. It is 1957, and there are few professional black players, so Troy thinks he is saving his son from the pain and trauma he had gone through. He wants the boy to be responsible and contribute to the family income, hence his order to Cory to go back to the A&P where he had just quit his job. He must ask for it back, which would mean resigning from his school’s football team.
A good example of Troy’s parenting skills, or lack of them, is this speech which comes at the end of a stream of back and forth remarks initiated by Cory’s asking his father, “How come you ain’t never liked me?”
“Like you? I go outta here every morning, I bust my butt ’cause I like you? You’re about the biggest fool I ever saw. A man is supposed to take care of his family. You live in my house, feed your belly with my food, put your behind on my bed because you’re my son. It’s my duty to take care of you, I owe a responsibility to you, I ain’t got to like you! Now, I gave everything I got to give you! I gave you your life! Me and your Mama worked out between us and liking your black ass wasn’t part of the bargain! Now don’t you go through life worrying about whether somebody like you or not! You best be makin’ sure that they’re doin’ right by you! You understand what I’m sayin’?”
But this is more than a father and son play, even though there is still another, much older son from a woman he had known years before he had gone to prison– Lyons (Russell Hornsby), a struggling musician who comes around on Troy’s payday to ask for another loan. Troy’s wife Rose (Viola Davis) appears early in the film, receiving Troy’s paycheck when he returns home with Bono to share drinks and tell tall tales. She joins in the conversation with the pair. Troy makes it very evident that he adores her, no doubt one reason being that she is strong enough to stand up to him. One example of this is, in her husband’s presence, going ahead and giving to Lyons the small amount of money he had requested, despite Troy’s having turned him down. Lyons might be another woman’s son, but she cares for him, and seems determined to treat him better than his father does.
Another important member of the family is Troy’s brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), a World War II veteran suffering from brain damage. Unable to hold a job, he wanders around the neighborhood while clutching an old dented trumpet because he believes he is God’s messenger. It was a large disability payment to him from the VA that had enabled the family to buy the house they are living in, Gabriel for several years living with them until he had moved on to an apartment close by.
It was at Rose’s request that Troy had started building the fence in their back yard to provide some privacy and safety. During the course of the film there are many scenes of him and Cory sawing boards for it. In one conversation, it seems to take on a symbolic meaning for Troy. Years before he had fought against death, so he regards the fence as a way to keep the Grim Reaper out. Still another meaning is suggested by Bono, “Some people build fences to keep people out, and other people build fences to keep people in.” And, as Troy and Cory clash over his giving up football, the fence also represents a barrier so high that it threatens to destroy their relationship—and not only between father and son, but, eventually, also between wife and husband.
It comes as a surprise that, as much as he loves Rose, Troy has maintained a mistress for several years, much to Bono’s displeasure. When she becomes pregnant and enters a hospital, he feels he must tell Rose his secret. Of course, she is terribly hurt and resentful. When the mistress dies in childbirth, Troy brings the baby, named Raynell, home. In a confrontation so powerfully written and acted that I am sure it alone would thrust Viola Davis into the Oscar race for Best Supporting actress, Rose agrees to take in the child, but she declares that Troy will no longer touch her. Several years later Raynell (Saniyya Sidney) will be an important factor in a decision to be made by the older Cory, by then a proud member of the Marines. Gabriel is also present at this point, after spending some time in the mental institution to which Troy had committed him. For reasons I will leave you to discover, he raises up his horn so that the gates of heaven will open up…The conclusion hints that maybe old Gabe isn’t so crazy after all.
This is a fine depiction of a blue collar black family during the Fifties. Race is not a dominant theme, though it is important, racism having impacted Troy throughout his life and blinded him to the possibility that times were changing and that his talented son might have a future in professional athletics. In the first scene Troy is talking with Bono as to why there are no “Negro” drivers, blacks being relegated to picking up and emptying the garbage cans. After he registers a complaint, he is apprehensive upon receipt of a summons to the sanitation office. What a relief to be told that he will be the first “Negro” driver. Troy becoming a driver means that the pals will no longer be working together, which has an unforeseen consequence.
It will be other factors, more than racism, that will lead to the disruption of this once close family. The fences (or “the dividing wall of hostility,” to use the apostle Paul’s phrase) we build take many forms. The apostle Paul sees Christ as the one tearing the barriers down, but only Rose is a person of faith, and she is so hurt by his betrayal that she gives up on Troy, even while still living with him afterward. Perhaps it is that faith, symbolized by the small cross she always wears around her neck, that enables her to help Cory come to terms with his father. Dealing with the dark legacy of a father also is a major theme in the film. Troy had let his father shape his life so that he became that which he had hated. Rose, by telling Cory that he is like his father, just might liberate the young man, this possibility suggested in the scene in which Cory and his little sister sing one of his father’s old songs.
Director Washington and scriptwriter/adapter Wilson have opened up the play a bit, a few scenes set outside the Maxon’s backyard and house, but it is evident that this was once a play confined to a stage. There is little physical action, the wordy dialogue driving the story forward. But what dialogue, so rich in passion and insight! What a treasure the late August Wilson has bequeathed to us. Denzel Washington does a fine job directing and performing the lead role. Both he and Viola Davis won awards for starring in the 2010 revival of the play. What a delight that their performances have now been made available for virtually everyone to see. For adults wanting more than shootouts and impossible car chases and rooftop pursuits, this film, so full of drama, humor, and tragedy, will be one of the most memorable cinema experiences of the year!
This review with a set of questions will be in the Jan. 2017 issue of VP.