His words were too familiar. I recognized his sentence structure, his phrasing, his authoritative heir that gallivanted under the disguise of selfless “protection.” The way he turned a phrase, captivating. The way he took command of the room, unparalleled. He brought forth words with such assurance, craft, potency, and conviction. What would it feel like to have such art come to life off the tongue? Deep belief laced in beautiful prose sprang forth and as it did, ears stood to attention as if ready to receive wisdom and instruction from God himself. With elbows on my knees and chin in hand, I sat hypnotized. For the roughly 120 minutes I spent in the plush recliner underneath the shadow of the 15-foot screen, I forgot that I was a bystander to a mere performance, no matter the thick aroma of its authenticity. Because the truth is, I knew this man. I’d been in his presence before.
There I sat in an eastern North Carolina theater, shoulder to shoulder with my brother. From the onlooker’s perspective, my enthralled physical appearance might have seemed ill-placed. After all, wasn’t I simply watching a movie about a man and his family, all of whom never existed, set some 60 years ago in a town 500 miles from where I sat? But we did more that day than take in a Friday afternoon matinee. For me, for my brother, and for millions of others, Denzel Washington’s Oscar-worthy depiction of father and husband Troy Maxson in the adapted-for-film Fences was as real as the foam-stuffed recliner we sat in and as unwanted as the pungent cloud of melted butter pervading the auditorium. (Fences has received 99 award nominations, netting 41 wins, and is in the running for four Academy Awards). Denzel Washington did more than perform; he resurrected ghosts. For those who have suffered the forced heartache and unrelenting pain of divorce and parental abandonment, Washington’s performance isn’t award-worthy because he plays the role of Troy Maxson so authentically. On our own standards, his performance is deserving of its host of nominations because in one role he encapsulates and brings to life the character and embodiment of our own fathers with such haunting authenticity. By playing one man so well, he plays millions. For this reason, his performance doesn’t seem beautiful in the slightest.
But isn’t the joy and beauty of movies their ability to draw us in with wonder, elevate us from our daily reality, and deliver us into another life, another situation, another cocktail of curious circumstances? They change our fate. They rewrite our story. They strengthen our resolve. They harvest hope where the soil was infertile. Movies add a comma to situations that life, it seems, has added a period, even if only for a few hours. All these and more are reasons we flock to the theater. In a sense, lounging back in stadium seating style gives us a breather. It gives us a respite. And at times, it numbs.Denzel Washington encapsulates and brings to life the character and embodiment of our own fathers with haunting authenticity. By playing one man so well, he plays millions.
Tucked away from the light of our mundane that more times than not brings clouds rather than sun, the theater auditorium issues forth a private world within our world, a world unable to stand up straight as it moves forward with a limp. Our world needs healing. Our reality needs a jolt of distractible joy. And for two hours, another narrative comes to life as our own slowly fades away during the previews.
It’s possible we would ask for a refund or fight to starve our desire for a trip to the silver screen if we knew that instead of taking us away from our reality, a movie would end up taking us back and deeper into our own war with our own stories; we’d stay in bed if we knew our most vulnerable wounds would be exposed, widened, and gouged. We would turn the car around and speed for home if instead of being protected and entertained, we knew we would be bruised and brought to great grief. It’s one level of discomfort watching Leo get eviscerated by a mother grizzly (a la DiCaprio’s Oscar-worthy performance in The Revenant). No, it’s a whole different type of discomfort when the movie itself performs such an attack on you, the viewer.
Fences attacked this way without warning. It didn’t bring me forward. It didn’t bring me out. Instead, it jolted me backward, plunged me deeper. Fences brought a reminder, not a hope. It burdened with added weight instead of rescuing with soothing relief. And I am certain I am not alone. I’m not the only one whose father chose something else, someone else, over commitment to his family. I’m not the only one who didn’t believe, just as Troy’s son Cory did in the film, that my father didn’t like me, didn’t enjoy me, didn’t want great things for me, and didn’t love me.
Fences rewinds our lives back to the dinner table. Back to the backyard. Back to the football field. Back to the driveway. Instead of showing us a hopeful end to our current story, it shows us the curvatures and detailed elevations of each scab that time has been so desperately trying to heal. Fences takes us back into those paradise-disproving conversations where we felt more like an object or a burden rather than a son or a daughter. With haunting alarm, Fences wakes us up and reminds us of the family fence that was supposed to surround and protect our family from packing up and searching for life beyond our own home.
Set in 1950s Pittsburg, we come to terms with the sobering truth that despite being 60 years removed, today’s families still aren’t great at building effective fences. The fence featured throughout film and the play is used as a mere allegory, a symbol of a much deeper and more integral form of familial and household protection than that of standing to surround the Maxsons’ backyard. Troy, the father, wants to build the fence to protect his house, his possessions, and his family from the threat of death. Rose, the mother, wants the fence to keep her family, those precious to her, close by and secure. And for Cory, their son, the fence is illustrative of the continued separation that builds up between his father and himself.
But amidst the unrelenting focus on building the physical fence around the Maxson property, no attention is given to the emotional, personal, and relational fence needed to keep the family together. This is what hits too close to home. Like watching a disaster unfold, we cry out in silent warning. We’ve been here. We’ve seen this blind spot. Troy’s conviction that being a father and husband means providing and protecting is left wanting. Yes, leading and caring for a family is providing for and protecting them from the harsh realities of the world. But that includes the danger that may come from your own hands. That includes the lust that grows deep in your own heart, constantly whispering to give in. To this the viewer gets a front row seat as Troy finds laughter and pleasure and meaning and purpose from the arms of another. Troy wanders outside the family fence.
But fatherhood is more than a to-do list. It’s more than a weekly schedule and daily routine. Taking care of a family means providing for them financially. Leading your family means protecting them against the harms and dangers this world may issue without request. Loving your family means making sure they have their head on straight before walking out into the world, making sure they can survive on their own. Yes, parenting and marriage are all of these. But it’s not only these.
What we witness is without the commitment, without the firmly planted feet, without the right fences in place, the heart wanders. Troy Maxson had his checklist that he completed with great commitment and conviction, as if upon its completion it might earn him pockets of time of his own to seek and enjoy pleasures outside his current family structure. But that’s not family. That’s not how family survives. That’s not how family thrives. Family doesn’t grow and stay healthy when you play your part in order to play the part you really want to play.
This is the particular fence that’s more important than any fence surrounding the property we own. This is the invisible fence that surrounds and protects our family not just from outside forces, but mainly the cultivation of inside enemies that lead to the escape, the infidelity, of one or more parents. This is what many know so well but wished they didn’t. But this is the movie experience we get with this trip to the silver screen. In award-worthy style, Fences reminds those still fighting off childhood demons of their own tragic family fence, one resembling something that surrounds an abandoned field, scattered with rotten wood; its inability to keep out or keep in on full display.
Where many of our favorite movies bring mystery and a look into the unknown, that’s not what we’re left with this time. What we do have is personal testimony of what it looks, feels, sounds, and hurts like when we are forgotten and unwanted by our own parents. We swallow the truth that we did or still do live in our own version of the Maxson home. We don’t need to study film or any of its intricacies to understand the raw tension in this picture. We don’t need to be educated or taught on the fear, confusion, anger, hurt, and sadness that comes when your family fence is breached. And while many may dream of one day having the necessary credentials to critically review films, the kids and adults whose parents left would gladly give up their all-access pass on this one.
On every other occasion, we might say we don’t need to live in Hollywood to offer a clear opinion.
But this time, that’s exactly where we live.