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“Fences” Review

Maya Satchell, Journalist

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“Some people build fences to keep people out…and other people build fences to keep people in…” There are all sorts of fences in the world, some we can see, and others that we cannot see, but we sure can feel. Fences sometimes can work to protect us, but more often fences work to keep us separate from each other. Fences can make it difficult to see and interact with other people, and can prevent us from really getting to know and understand the people who live on the other side. However, the movie entitled Fences can work to bring the viewer into a world with which he or she might be unfamiliar, and thereby help the viewer become better able to see and better understand this world.

Fences, starring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, is a powerful screen adaptation of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play by the same name. The film is set in a working-class, black community in 1950’s Pittsburgh, and centers on the challenges faced by the members of an African-American family: Troy Maxson and his wife Rose; their son Cory, a high school senior; Lyons, Troy’s older son by a former relationship; and Troy’s brother, Gabriel, who suffered a traumatic brain injury as a soldier in WWII. We see Troy in his longtime friendship with his buddy Bono, and as a man facing down racism on the job. The viewers see Troy trying and at times failing to be a good father to his sons and a good husband to his wife, as well as a good brother to Gabriel and a good friend to Bono. We are given an amazing glimpse into the challenges and the new opportunities experienced by black people in the 1950’s, who are beginning to see some hope in Jackie Robinson’s admission into major league baseball. However, we also see how people of any community who make poor choices in life do so not simply because they are bad people, but because they have faced abuse or lack of opportunity in their own childhood and youth, and are scarred by such experiences.

August Wilson, who died in 2005 at the age of 60, was called by the New York Times the poet of black America. He is best known for a cycle of ten plays that were nearly all set in the historic African-American Hill District of Pittsburgh, where Mr. Wilson was born. Each play is set in a different decade of the 20th century, and as the century progresses, each play tells the story of the African-American community predominantly through the lives of ordinary black people. The language of the plays, which can be heard in the movie Fences as well, is rich and eloquent, and can sound like a kind of spoken blues or jazz. Some of Wilson’s best-known plays in this play cycle include Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Ma Rainey, The Piano Lesson, and of course, Fences. He has said that he was inspired by the four B’s: the blues, the writer Jorge Luis Borges, the playwright Amiri Baraka, and the painter Romare Beardon. Fences achieved success on Broadway in 1987, but took a long time to become a film, as August Wilson insisted that the film be directed by a black director. Denzel Washington, who had played Troy in a 2010 Broadway revival of the play, agreed to direct the film as well as to reprise his role as Troy. The cast also includes Viola Davis, who had been the Rose to Denzel’s Troy in the same Broadway production, roles which earned them both Tony awards.

There were parts of the film that will bring you to tears, especially the scenes with Gabriel, and other parts that are full of humor, especially Troy’s conversations with his old friend, Bono. I was really fascinated by the historical context of the setting for Fences, which included references to the Negro baseball league and to the experiences of black men who had served in the army during WWII and then faced prejudice when they returned back home to America. While I was amazed by all of the actors in the film, I was completely blown away by Viola Davis’ performance as Rose. She really made Rose, with all of her patience and strength, come to life, and I absolutely agree with what I heard another person in the movie theater say when the credits were rolling: “If that performance doesn’t win Viola Davis an Oscar…” Even though many people speak of a certain scene from the movie as being her most powerful performance, I think that all throughout the film, Viola Davis lets us see and understand the way in which Rose’s love and strength held up both the Maxson family and her community.

So if you want to be able to look over a fence into another time and another community, go outside of your own fences and sit down for a visit in another family’s home, I would very much recommend that you take the time to go and see Fences. It might help you understand what can happen to a person, or to a father or a son, or to a wife and a mother, or to a community when, like Langston Hughes wrote, a dream is deferred….

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The student news site of Corona del Mar High School
“Fences” Review