Fences— Do They Make Good Neighbors?

There are two famous poetic sayings about fences— ‘good fences make good neighbors’ and even more famously Robert Frost’s ‘something there is that doesn’t love a wall’. The recent film starring two world-class actors Denzel Washington as the husband Troy and Viola Davis as the wife Rose is based on the play of August Wilson. Sometimes the adapting of a play for film doesn’t work so well, but in this case, especially because of the strength of the two lead characters, the story comes through loud and clear. It is set in 1958 in a blue collar black neighborhood in Pittsburgh and chronicles the story of the adult lives of Troy and Rose and their son Cory, and the brother and friends of Troy. The film is set almost entirely in the house and backyard of Troy and Rose, and there is very little action in the drama. But drama there is because of the huge amount of dialogue in the movie. It opens with Denzel Washington talking for about five minutes straight, and the audience suddenly realizes they have to be on full alert or they will miss something, rather like what happens on the TV show Elementary if you are not paying close attention to what Sherlock says. My one complaint about the film is that precisely because there is little action in the movie— and movies are more about showing than telling, that 133 minutes gets to be a bit long for this film. Otherwise, it is spectacular as we are ushered into the private lives of two African Americans struggling to survive in still mostly segregated America (e.g. Troy keeps complaining to the boss that all the garbage men who pick up the garbage are black, but the drivers of the trucks who make more money are white).

There are various threads to the storyline— the coming of age of Cory and his desire to be affirmed by his father, who wants his son to be different from him, and is no encouragement to him when he wants to pursue sports as Troy had done. There is the story of Troy reaching his 50s and having a sort of male menopause crisis when he feels like he has accomplished little in life, and has lost his joy in living (leading to an affair). You can imagine Bette Midler singing in the background ‘Is that all there is…’ Troy is an interesting and magnetic personality, but he is also frightening in his intensity, and he scares his mentally impaired brother Gabe, his son Cory, and sometimes his wife. His wife, on the other hand, is indeed a rose, without any thorns. She is a Christian woman, who bakes cakes for the church, and tries to do right and live right. Troy, tries to be a stand up guy, but fails in one huge way which I’ll let you watch the film and find out about.

This is a cautionary tale about living on the edge of poverty, and the desperate need for money and decent work to support a family. It’s about black people having to sublimate their dreams due to the racism of the larger culture. But it is also about friendship and the relationship between Troy and his best friend and coworker Bono (played effectively by Stephen Henderson) is especially worth watching. This film is not a feel good movie like ‘Hidden Figures’ but it rings true and bears witness to the tragedy that can happen to families under pressure when a dream shrivels up ‘like a raisin in the son’ as one famous African American writer once observed.

Troy spends many years trying to build a fence to protect himself and his loved ones. But the fence could not keep out one neighbor— the ever present ‘old scratch’ as he used to be called— the Devil.

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