Preface: This movie has so many layers, I couldn’t possibly tackle it all at once. This focuses mostly on Troy’s character. I don’t even mention Rose. She’ll need a whole post of her own.
*Loud exhale* And now, I feel complete. For years, I’ve seen snippets of the Fences stage play floating around the internet. In three- and five-minute bursts, I’ve watched James Earl Jones and Uncle Zel (that’s Denzel Washington to you) breathe life into August Wilson’s brutally honest dialogue on manhood, but I couldn’t figure out for the life of me why it was called Fences. Now I know. Now I get it. The circle is complete.
What is a fence other than an edifice of demarcation? It is a way of publically claiming what is yours. It is a way of highlighting ownership, privacy, value. “This here is mine. Respect that.” Can you imagine why a poor black man in the early 1950s would want to make such a proclamation? Troy needed to prove, not so much to others but more so to himself, that he has done something in this world, that he has carved out a piece of it and created within a sum much greater than its parts. He needed something to define him, and that’s what fences do. But what about mental fences? How many of those have we built to separate ourselves from what we despise, only to find ourselves locked in with a destiny we thought we’d thrown away? Is that not what happens to Troy? Is that not what happens to all of us when we want better but don’t know how to achieve it?
If nothing else, Fences teaches us that we are not necessarily who we want to be, but only who we know how to be. That can be both a beautiful and scary thing. Our desires for ourselves can go no farther than our actions can carry us. And our actions, those sometimes nonsensical deeds and movements, are wrapped up in and intertwined with the muck and mire of everything we’ve experienced and seen. That’s heavy, man. And it adds meat to the bones of the dysfunctional relationships so many of us can’t help but to pass on and down.
Consider Troy, with his tall tales and big belly laughs. He left home at 14 to escape a hellish father he wanted no parts of. Troy describes him as a devil who chased away every woman he ever had, including Troy’s mother. Troy wanted to be the man his underdeveloped father couldn’t be, but how much better did he do? How successful was he in erecting that fence between himself and his mean ole daddy? Well, he never learned to read, became a thief, fathered Lyons at 19, spent 15 years in jail and ended up missing all his oldest son’s formative years. In turn, Lyons grows into a pained, underperforming man whose only solace is his music. Different circumstances, same loss.
Even after Troy marries Rose and becomes a better man, he still fathers his second son in a harsh and insensitive way that leaves young Cory feeling unliked and unwanted. Troy’s goal is to make Cory strong, prepare his dear son for an unforgiving world. But to Cory, it all feels so mean and unloving—just like Troy’s father. As hard as Troy tries to run, he doesn’t make it all that far. Right down to the vicious fight in the yard, he is his father’s son, fenced in for life. These are the cycles that preserve our misfortune and pain.
All Troy wants to do is steer Cory in a direction that will be fruitful. He wants him to achieve and succeed so he doesn’t reach the age of 53 and feel trapped in his own life, seeking out scraps of joy between the sheets of strange women and building hardwood fences in the hopes of keeping death at bay until he can become something worth mourning. But the message gets lost in translation. Between all the barking and braying, Troy forgets (or probably just doesn’t know) that a son needs his father to be soft, too.
To the viewer, it is clear that Troy loves his son. (Why else would he pour into him the importance of manhood? Why else would he offer to go half on a television?) But this is what we see from our perch far removed. To young Cory, insecure and searching, it feels like cuts and digs. It feels like a father slashing away at the budding wings of a son. And he’s too close to see that what he perceives as slashing is actually a form of building and sharpening. Flawed though it may be, it is Troy’s best effort to grow his seed. If only Troy knew that seeds need not only heat, but water, too.
But still, Troy is beautiful. Despite his rough edges and multitude of missteps, there lives in him a palpable love that no one could deny. What Fences does so amazingly well is incorporate the complexity of the human spirit. It shows that no one is a complete villain or victim. We are all but a mix of good and bad, of dignity and shame. We all struggle to blot out our own darkness with light. And sometimes we fail. Horrible and embarrassed and undignified, we let our weaknesses take root and move us to places we truly should never be. Because we are meant to be golden. Pumping hearts and buzzing minds our confirmation, we are greater than we know. And so the embers of good will exist within us even if we don’t stoke them. Even if we stomp them out in a drunken rage, even if we muzzle our own calling to right, it will live. It will smolder and glow and softly rumble beneath, beckoning us back to our nature, back to what we were designed to be: upright and good.
That’s why Troy is able to have at least the tiniest bit of empathy for his father. When he says to Bono and Lyons, “The only thing that was separating us was a matter of years,” he is recognizing that his father was young, immature and ill-prepared. And though it is not stated or even implied, it is safe to assume that he never received from his own father the type of love that he struggled to give Troy. This is the context that makes it possible for Troy to hold love for the “evil” man who bore him. He knows his father wasn’t meant to be that way. This is why he sings his father’s song with pride and zeal. This is why he drills into his children the lyrics of that song and points out its author every chance he gets. It is his way of recognizing the embers of good in his mean ole daddy.
In the end, it is his granddaddy’s song that gives Cory the perspective he’d been missing. It helps him see the bits of water that had all the while been mixed in with daddy’s heat. In singing that simple song about a dog named Blue, he realizes that his father really did the best he could with what he had. And so that fence he started building six years prior no longer needed to stand. That’s what healing looks like. That’s where growth begins.