“Hurt people hurt people”. This old proverb is the shortest and most accurate summation of many parents with unresolved childhood issues who then both consciously and subconsciously punish their children for wounds which have never healed. In this award winning film based on the critically-acclaimed play by August Wilson, we get a raw, honest, and undiluted view of how parents can transfer their baggage to their children and how toxic the “love” of a broken person can be.
Fences is set in the 1950s-1060s and is centered around the very charismatic but incredibly narcissistic Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington). Troy is firmly lower-middle class and has a job as a waste collector, working with his best friend Jim Bono (Stephen Henderson). Troy and Jim met many years ago back when Troy, a career criminal at the time, was sent to prison for robbery. Upon leaving prison, Troy, who was a very talented baseball player, played for the Negro Leagues, but was never accepted into Major League Baseball (MLB), an organization that didn’t take any Black players prior to 1947. We learn about this part of Troy’s past during his numerous monologues, as Troy (a gifted storyteller) only seems at ease when he has a rapt audience in his best friend, wife, and children to listen as he frequently walks down memory lane.
Troy is most ill-at-ease in the company of his two sons, his estranged eldest, Lyons (Russell Hornsby), who Troy left behind when he was arrested and was thus raised without him, and Cory (Jovan Adepo), his son with his wife. Though Lyons doesn’t harbour resentment towards Troy, his stepmother, or his half-brother for his father’s absence in his childhood, Troy’s interactions with him make it painfully clear that Lyons’ presence reminds Troy of his own failings as a father. In the case of Cory, who is both an excellent student and a star football player at his high school, his son’s success reminds Troy of his own inadequacies, what-could-have-beens, and the racism that kept him from his dreams. Throughout the film, Troy psychologically abuses, intimidates, and belittles both of his sons, continuing the legacy of being emotionally absent with Lyon and destroying Cory’s otherwise attainable dreams, just as his were once destroyed.
Troy’s wife, Rose (Viola Davis) is the quintessential housewife: attractive, kind, attentive, neat, and an excellent homemaker. In her company, Troy has a friend, a lover, and a partner who is in it for the long haul, but this still isn’t good enough, and the man who “doesn’t have the time” to go see his eldest son, a talented musician, perform, or go watch one of his youngest son’s football games does somehow manage to fit in the time to cheat and get another woman pregnant. In between gaslighting, psychologically, and (in Cory’s case) physically abusing the fuck out of a family who only want his love and support, Troy conceives a daughter whose mother dies in labour, leaving an incredibly generous and big-hearted Rose to help him raise the child.
In Troy, audiences see someone so consumed with the pain they have endured, both real and perceived, that rather than enjoy good in the life he has, and accept the love of a faithful wife, a warm and gentle brother, the joy of two talented sons, the loyalty of a good friend, and the security of an honest job, he punishes his family for the wrongs of his own abusive father, his unstable, insecure childhood, and goals that he was never able to realize. Despite his obvious charm, easy smile, and swagger, Troy is so toxic and bitter, and it is this bitterness which infects the lives of everyone around him. Watching Troy do his utmost to destroy the life that he has carved out for himself is akin to watching a dog try to chew off it’s own leg. We feel sorry for him, but can’t help but think of the irreparable harm he’s causing.
Troy had led a difficult life, but for everyone around him, his presence was the chief difficulty, and watching these people try so hard to love such a raging narcissist who consistently threw their love in their faces is painful. Though Washington and the entire ensemble cast give unforgettable performances, it’s Davis who steals the show in a series of the most powerful monologues ever seen on film. Rose’s pain is tangible in every syllable Davis utters, every vocal inflection, in every tear she sheds. Rose is the wife who gives too much and is deeply under-appreciated by someone whom she is far too good for. The pain that she and Troy’s children endure is a vivid example of why mental health services are so vital and why partners and parents who actually care about their loved ones absolutely need these things. Even more than this, Fences highlights how Troy’s selfishness, hypocrisy, and lack of accountability were ultimately his downfall. Though race, class, and the time period were valid reasons for the Maxsons to never receive adequate mental health care, there was no good reason for the way Troy used his “loved” ones to exorcise his pain, only to inevitably cause himself so much more. Fences reminds audiences of the necessity of breaking the cycle of abuse and giving our children more love than we received.
I give this one 5 stars.