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Fences: The Best Filmed Play Since Death of a Salesman?

Walter Moss: The American failing that most impacts Fences’ Troy is U. S. racism. He believes it prevented him from playing Major League baseball before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947.

Amazon Prime recently made available Denzel Washington’s Fences (2016) and I viewed it. It was terrific. Based on August Wilson’s play and screenplay of the same name, the film also features director Washington in the leading male role of Troy Maxson, a 53-year-old Pittsburgh garbageman. It struck me in a way similar to Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman did after I first saw it on TV in 1966, with Lee J. Cobb in the lead role of Willy Loman.

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What we have in both productions is family drama, with the father as the most tragic figure. The tragic flaw of both Willy and Troy is a failure to be more loving and empathetic to their family members. Although both men have some admirable qualities, they are both unfaithful (with at least one woman) to their wives—Viola Davis is great as Troy’s wife Rose—and neither Willy nor Troy are the empathetic fathers to their sons that they should be. (Both men have two sons, in Troy’s case the eldest is from a previous marriage.) The fathers’ failures result from their lack of self-knowledge and insight, as well as their inability to mature properly. But the America they grew up in also ill prepared them to be loving husbands and fathers and proper role models for their sons.

Willy became a salesman when he “realized that selling was the greatest career a man could want.” In the 1920s, Metropolitan Insurance put out a pamphlet, Moses Persuader of Men,extolling Moses as “one of the greatest salesmen and real-estate promoters that ever lived.” A book called The Man Nobody Knows stated that Jesus was a great business executive, “the founder of modern business,” and that his parables were “the most powerful advertisements of all time.” In 1925-1926 this book topped the non-fiction best-seller list. But after Willie had worked as a travelling salesman for the same company for three and a half decades, he is no longer an effective seller and is fired. One of his big mistakes was to devote his working life to a career our U. S. consumer culture overvalues—salesmanship—which often means selling people things they don’t need and sometimes can’t afford.

The American failing that most impacts Fences’ Troy is U. S. racism. He believes it prevented him from playing Major League baseball before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947. In an early scene he says: “I done seen a hundred niggers [in the Negro League] play baseball better than Jackie Robinson. Hell, I know some teams Jackie Robinson couldn’t even make! What you talking about Jackie Robinson. Jackie Robinson wasn’t nobody. I’m talking about if you could play ball then they ought to have let you play. Don’t care what color you were. Come telling me I come along too early. If you could play . . . then they ought to have let you play.” [All film quotes taken from the screenplay.]

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Troy also reveals that his father was an Alabama sharecropper who beat him. So at age 14 (in 1918) he walked 200 miles to Mobile and then hitched a ride to Pittsburgh. “Got up here and found out . . . not only couldn’t you get a job . . . you couldn’t find no place to live. I thought I was in freedom. Shhh. Colored folks living down there on the riverbanks in whatever kind of shelter they could find for themselves. . . . Living in shacks made of sticks and tar paper. . . . Messed around there and went from bad to worse. Started stealing. First it was food. Then I figured, hell, if I steal money I can buy me some food. Buy me some shoes too! One thing led to another.”

Troy then met his first wife and had a son (Lyons) and figured he had “to steal three times as much. Went out one day looking for somebody to rob . . . . pulled out my knife . . . and he pulled out a gun. Shot me in the chest. . . . When he shot me I jumped at him with my knife. They told me I killed him and they put me in the penitentiary and locked me up for fifteen years. . . . That’s where I learned how to play baseball.” (Although filmgoers might think it unlikely that someone in prison could develop adequate enough baseball skills to play at a major league level that is exactly what occurred in the case of former Detroit Tiger center fielder Ron LeFlore.)

While Troy was in prison, his first wife took their son and started a new life for the two of them. After his release, Troy met Rose and left his life of crime behind: He got his steady job as a garbage man, brought home his paycheck every Friday and gave it to Rose, and they raised their son, Cory.

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But Troy remains bitter about never being able to play Major League baseball. At one point he compares himself to George Selkirk, who “used to play right field for the Yankees. . . . Man batting .269, understand? .269. What kind of sense that make? [In the Negro League] I was hitting .432 with thirty-seven home runs!” Nor at the beginning of the film is he happy about the discrimination that he faces as a garbageman. He tells his friend and fellow trash gatherer Bono, “I went to Mr. Rand and asked him—“Why? Why you got the white mens driving and the colored lifting?” Told him, “What’s the matter, don’t I count?”

Troy’s bitterness also blinds him to the changes going on about him by 1957, when most of the play occurs, and contributes to his harsh treatment of his high-school son. Even though Cory is a good enough football player to be sought out by a college recruiter, Troy tells Rose: “I told that boy about that football stuff. The white man ain’t gonna let him get nowhere with that football. I told him when he first come to me with it. Now you come telling me he done went and got more tied up in it. He ought to go and get recruited in how to fix cars or something where he can make a living. . . . It ain’t gonna get him nowhere. . . . What it ever get me? Ain’t got a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out of.”

Neither the flaws of Willy Loman nor those of Troy Maxson can all be blamed on the environments they grew up in, but their younger experiences certainly contributed to making them the men they became. And watching Fences, like viewing Selma and Mudbound earlier this year, made me once again ashamed of what we whites had done to blacks in the 1950s and before.

When I was still a small boy, I can remember going to Crosley Field in Cincinnati to watch the Reds and not a black player appeared on their roster until 1954. Segregation was still entrenched throughout the Deep South. Even though Afro-American conditions improved significantly in the 1960s and thereafter—pictures of JFK and MLK appear in the Maxson home by the end of the film—in 2007 then-Senator Barack Obama could still state (almost accurately) “we have more black men in prison than we have in our colleges.” And a decade later the election of Donald Trump and his presidential behavior continue to indicate that we have much work remaining before we make real the words we used to say as children when we pledged allegiance to the flag: “one Nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all”—“under God” was not added until 1954.

But it is part of the greatness of Wilson’s play and Washington’s film that Fences reflects and provides ponderable material not only about the black experience in America, but about human life, especially family life, in general. As Lydia Davis says in the excellent PBS production August Wilson: The Ground on Which I Stand: “I think anyone can hear their story through his work because he wrote about the human condition which is universal.”

Being just a year older than Troy’s son Cory in 1957, I can attest that there were also many white fathers who then encouraged their sons, as Troy does to Cory, to get a part-time job to “help him take care of his school clothes and things. . . . [to] start to look out for himself.” White fathers who discouraged their sons athletic activities and advised their sons to forget college and instead learn “how to fix cars or something where . . . [one] can make a living.” And there were white fathers who sometimes, as Troy did, drank too much, and white fathers (like Willy Loman as well as Troy) who sometimes cheated on their wives. And there were plenty of long-suffering white mothers, like Rosa and countless other non-white mothers, who loved their children and sometimes stood up for them in their battles with their fathers. And there were many white sons who were unsure how to best overcome their dads’ resistance to their dreams. And some, who like Cory, joined the Marines (or the Army or Navy) to get away from their fathers.

There is much more to admire about Fences. For example,

  • The great acting. Washington, as well as Viola Davis, is terrific (both starred in the 2010 Broadway revival of the play), and the supporting cast like his two sons, Lyons (Russell Hornsby) and Cory (Jovan Adepo), his brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), and his friend Bono (Stephen Henderson) are all first rate.
  • The treatment of Gabriel. He is a veteran of WWII, has a plate in his head, and has serious mental problems. He reminds us of the terrible costs of war, as perhaps best put by the British novelist Ian McEwan, who once wrote about one of his characters: “He was struck by the recently concluded war [World War II] not as a historical, geopolitical fact but as a multiplicity, a near-infinity of private sorrows, as a boundless grief minutely subdivided without diminishment among individuals who covered the [European] continent like dust.”
  • The multiple and effective use of symbols, from fences to the horn his brother Gabriel blows.

This essay just touches on this wonderful drama that Wilson wrote and Washington brings to the screen. Watching the film itself and also viewing the PBS production mentioned above about Wilson (both free for Amazon Prime customers) will provide more insights about the film and about one of our best playwrights.

walter moss

Walter G. Moss