Fences & Fathers
Alright, Thabiti, before we chop, you know I have to make one thing clear. I’mma go ahead and make it plain for ya. Let me break it down like a fraction:
The University of North Carolina Tar Heels took to the hardwood and WOOPED. UP. ON. your State Wolfpack the other night, man! And they wooped on ‘em bad. I mean, we beat y’all like y’all stole something. 56-107? C’mon, bruh. Y’all at least gotta show up. SMH.
OK, now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk about something a bit more…refined, shall we :)? But perhaps, refined isn’t the right word to discuss the movie we want to talk about, and specifically the themes I want to talk about: fatherhood and sonship, which the movie so powerfully emanates. The movie I’m talking about is Fences, the main actors are Denzel Washington—the perennial monolith—and Ms. Viola Davis, who just won a Golden Globe for her supporting role; I suspect you’ll talk more about the support her character, Rose, offered in the movie. And heads up, there are some spoilers in what’s below, but I figured an ole’ head like you, T, needs reminding.
But let me go back to that word refined and explain why it isn’t appropriate for my purposes here. It’s not the right word because life is, well, anything but refined. It’s messy, hard, forceful, joyous, mournful and everything in between—it is in itself the full merism, the scope that spans two ends of a spectrum. And Fences is about life. Life’s range, the range of a man, is one of the things I found so powerfully depicted by Troy (Washington’s character), who is a 53 year-old garbage man with a mentally disabled-brother, whom, to be more specific, was disabled by war, and his teenage son, Cory, who longs to enjoy his potential to go to college. Troy is a washed up baseball player more or less, who was—from his perspective—forbidden to go to the majors given the racism of the day; the movie is set in the 1950’s. Troy apparently made Jackie Robinson, someone whose name I’ve only heard harked in tones of admiration and laud, look like a scrub. And yet, binging on his gin and telling more stories “than the Devil has sinners,” Troy seems like…the man.
T, the man had charisma. He was smooth. He was funny. He was handsome and proud, confident and captivating, elderly yet vivacious. (For the record, I’ve been told in the past that I look like Denzel, but I guess that’s for another article :-P). Seriously though, I found myself never looking at Washington, but always looking at Troy, and looking at him longingly. As the movie began and progressed, I wanted to be Troy. Hard-working. Adored by my wife. Idolized by my son. The man.
Troy, as Rose, his wife, shares later in the movie, “was so big, he filled the house.” He must’ve filled his work place, too, as he could lobby to be the only black garbage truck driver in the city. Again, he was the man, the provider, the husband, the father—with seemingly all that weighty task calls weak men to be.
Troy reminded me so much of my own Pop, T. My dad is 76 years old; he had me when he was 50! When I was young and he felt the need to remind me that he was not, he would simply say: “Boy, I’m as old as mud.” The way he would stretch out that word mud always made me laugh. “Muuuud.” My pop made a dirty concept pure in my mind. Man, could my dad tell some stories. Man, could he make you howl. Man, did he fill the room.
That is, until one day, he didn’t. I won’t go into all of his errors—of which I have plenty—but let’s simply say there was fall with my Pop. He was disciplined by the church I grew up in, strained his relationship with all of my siblings…yeah, it’s been tough. Don’t hear me wrong—he worked hard, so hard, and he faithfully provided for his family, a duty Troy thought the only binding ultimatum, the main expression of a Father’s love. But nonetheless, life with him was…is…good and bad.
And I saw that same, difficult spectrum in Troy and his son’s relationship, that same toil, that same defeat. Though Troy finally secures that unprecedented promotion at work, it seems he lost his soul in the process, much to the terror of Rose, who by all means seems like a faithful Christian and pillar of her church. What good is it, T, to gain the whole world and lose our souls? None. And Troy showed it. And those around him felt his loss. His son, who wanted nothing more but love from him, eventually grew to demonize his idol, his father. After leaving home (or being kicked out?), he comes back a marine, a man. My brother also went into the Marines, in some part—I think—to be what my dad wasn’t. I can’t say for sure. The irony is that my dad was a vet. And I think trying to escape the people whose blood runs in us is a powerful thing in life. How do you escape something inside of you?
Coming back home after Troy’s death, his son—Cory, the Marine—returns to find that the anguish he thought he left actually never left him. It flooded him as he walked through the house, and Rose, his mama, could see it. Refusing to go to his own father’s funeral out of resentment, Cory hears a profound truth from his mama: That his dad wanted him to be, “everything he was and everything he wasn’t.” And to some degree, Corey, was just that—a walking war of conflicting forces. A man.
As a man, a normal man, Troy was a full merism, T: Good and bad. Wise and foolish. Sane and crazy. Enraged and serene. Firm and Fragile. Confident and Terrified. Wonderful and horrible. A man—and as I’ve heard you say, T: “The best of men are men at best.”
What stuck out to me about this movie, T, wasn’t that it was an all black cast, though I found that beautiful; it wasn’t that it was originally a play by a black playwright, August Wilson. It was that I saw the movie on Monday. And on Tuesday I had lunch with a black brother, and on Wednesday I had lunch with a different black brother. And they both saw Fences, and in it, they both saw what their daddies were and weren’t. They saw what they did want to be and didn’t want to be. And there in that moment of realization, my friends and I realized that we shared some experience of tragedy and of wonder. We had been sons of imperfect men; men whose hard lives hardened them. Womenless men. Fathers of the full merism.
You know something of what I’m talking about, I think, T—don’t you? Before I get to talking more about how this all relates to some themes of God the Father, I want to hear what you took away from the flick.