To tell you the truth, I’ve been trying to get this out since forever. Not really a review of the movie, but a recounting of how it moved me. Fences covers so much ground in so little time. It’s astonishing, really, how many layers August Wilson wrote into this tiny play. Wilson’s work deserves dissertations’ worth of analysis I can’t possibly give. Perhaps that’s why my thoughts have resisted organization. But I’m giving it a go today.
I did not cry during Fences as did so many of my friends and fellow writerly people. I couldn’t. But I should have. In Troy Maxon, August Wilson humanized “trifling” by turning it into “trying.” I never once in all my life felt so much empathy for a character who broke hearts like a bull in a China shop. Troy Maxon was my grandfather. He was the father of people I have known my whole life to struggle with the pebble of bitterness they carry towards their daddies. August Wilson rubbed over a rough place and made that ugliness shine. Made it precious.
The gem of Fences is all that talk, that meaty dialogue where Denzel showed himself masterful. My God, but Troy Maxon could spin a tale to make you laugh yourself dizzy. But at some point, it occurred to me that Troy talked so much crap because he didn’t know s*** from Shinola about communicating his own feelings. Ever seen a man talk so much and say so little? Mouth running like a sputtering motor while his heart’s on E.
But this is–was–Black masculinity. This was what we required of Black men: that they be stalwart in the face of racism, no kind of punk, that they pack their feelings into the steel toe of a work boot and keep moving. Ain’t no room in the bottom of a shoe for expressing love, or fear. We asked them to squash emotions until they came leaking out through a hole they couldn’t patch up quickly enough.
Troy Maxon taught me a good thing or two about Black men. He made me consider what racism does to the mind and emotions. When Troy tells both his wife and son in separate scenes essentially that the sweat of his brow is all he got left to give them, I wanted to curl up somewhere and bawl. The racist devil stole the abundance of life from that Black man and so many others. You squeeze a man for so long, he learns to survive on less air. But the pulp dries out. His sweet turns bitter. Troy couldn’t even see the love in front of his face, the love he threw his arms around and snuggled before daybreak. He couldn’t see the mirror image of himself in his son swinging a bat at him and missing. He couldn’t feel their love through the liquor.
That was my grandaddy. Swigging on brown bottles in the American Rust Belt, giving as much hell to his family as he was catching outside the home. My mother and aunt, who saw Fences separately, both said that Troy reminded them of their father. In Fences, when Corey cowers beneath his father’s towering figure, awaiting the bat’s blow, I thought of my mama huddling. I thought of how she refused to attend her father’s funeral, like Corey did.
It would’ve been incredibly easy to make Troy Maxon a villain. He cheats on his saintly wife, drives his teenage son out of the home, gets another woman pregnant and brings the baby home to his wife. Troy was a coward and a grinning fool. But in that portrayal, Denzel brought all the humanity in the world to a generation of men I have little understood. When you equate manhood with the ability to earn a living, and then you deny a man the opportunity to make that living fairly and honestly, you’re toying with his mental health. What little living he can eke out eats at him. Patriarchy is both his jail and redemption.
In that performance, Denzel carried more than just the voice of a wise-cracking, tired old Pittsburgh garbage collector. He breathed life into dry bones, hung flesh on skeletons in Black family closets. Denzel embodied all those Black fathers who could neither hug nor kiss their sons, but kept the lights on. Men whose inability to flip themselves inside out to their wives landed them in other women’s beds. I know so much was said about Rose’s sacrifice. And maybe I will say something later. But I only had eyes for Troy. Troy, who could charm a snake out of his skin but couldn’t bring himself to say he liked his own son. Denzel’s acting gave me a window and proceeded to shatter what I thought I knew about Black masculinity then and now.
I used to perceive only frailty in “trifling.” I understand Black men were trying now, so hard, at the very same time the world was trying them.
All the pain of that truth compressed into the thin line of Denzel’s mouth when Casey Affleck thanked Denzel for teaching him how to act. A mirthless smile. A knowing look. How do you capture the essence of an entire generation in a fenced backyard and not win an award for that sweat? Troy Maxon knew the answer to that question. Denzel swung for the Fences and he didn’t miss. The Academy did.
Did you see Fences? If you haven’t, I recommend you find a theater and get your life.