“Fences” and the Fenced-in Sisters of Our Lives
Hopefully by now you have seen the screen adaption of August Wilson’s Fences. You owe it to yourself. The film grips you at every level as Denzel Washington and Viola Davis turn in Oscar-worthy performances in every scene. And if you wish to take a peek into African-American life in the middle of twentieth century Pittsburgh, you could hardly do better than the themes and characters of Wilson’s Fences.
In his post, my brother Isaac attempted to meditate on some of the fatherhood themes in the movie. Indeed, those themes are poignant and, like Isaac, I suspect no man can watch the film without seeing something of himself and his father in it.
However, I want to make the case that the most powerful aspect of the film is its depiction of Black womanhood. Viola Davis plays “Rose,” the wife of the main character “Troy Maxson” (hard to not see some irony in that last name), a graying middle-aged former Negro Leagues baseball player whose legend grows in his own mind the further he gets away from his playing days. The more he tells his story, the more bitter he grows about his life until he seeks sinful escape.
“Rose” captures all the poise, power and peril Black women embody.
Consider the poise. She stands womanly with her husband—laughing at his jokes, accepting his romantic advances, sometimes keeping him in line, and dutifully making a home for their small family. She is a woman of faith—a quiet but active faith as she serves her church and maintains a sense of morality in the home. As all the men in the film attest, Rose is “a good woman,” full of dignity and regal bearing.
Then there is her power. It’s rose who manages the home. Troy, as good men used to do, brings his paycheck home to his wife. She stewards the little they have so that no one lacks—not her brother-in-law with traumatic head injury or Troy’s adult son who drops in on payday in search of loans. She holds together the men in her life—her hard-boiled husband and her teenage son who hopes to be an athlete like his father but has to fight for space from the same. On her faith and baking a church is built. In Rose we meet a woman of bridled and purposeful power.
But we meet a woman in peril. Poise and power in Black women is fragile because good Black women are too seldom valued as they should be. More often they’re taken for granted. More often they’re simply not acknowledged as they bear more than their share of the weight of sacrifice and endure the smothering presence of selfish men who presumptuously expect their love in the bedroom, their management of the home, and their encouragement in trial.
That all comes to a head when Troy, while confessing his family-threatening sin, attempts to justify himself with reference to his frustration at standing still in life. Rose—with the fire of righteous indignation and shattered peace—reminds him that she and their son “have been standing right here with you!” Too often Black women are invisible even in the story of their love.
Her fire notwithstanding, in that moment her life changes radically—just as the misconduct of men imperil the lives of Black women today. Already scraping to make ends meet, she’s now vulnerable to further financial fragility should Troy stop bringing his check home. She now finds herself in the “half family” she never wanted. She discovers that a man’s sense of duty—which Troy seems to have in spades—is insufficient for fulfilling a woman’s sense of desirability and security. She now watches her husband continue in the kind of sin that strikes not just at the heart of a woman but at the heart of womanhood itself. She has strength and dignity to announce that Troy is “a womanless man.”
But please do not miss the irony—she in some sense pronounces the same fate on herself. She becomes a “womanless woman.” Dignity costs her love, romance, family and stability. She enters far too early into a kind of post-sexual womanhood, maternal and nurturing but no longer expecting or receiving the same from others. Rose shows us the perilous tradeoff far too many sisters face. She’s fenced into this fate—unable to keep out of her home the lecherous world and unable to keep inside her yard the objects of her love. This is an absurdity only Black women know in such volume it appears normal.
I think it’s an insult that Viola Davis may be up for an Oscar for “Best Supporting Actress.” Denzel Washington should be nominated for “Best Supporting Actor.” But Davis carried the film with her multi-layered character. Her portrayal of “Rose” made her the star—by far. I don’t think we’ve ever seen a more robust depiction of the valor of Black women and “violence” against Black womanhood. I found myself both rooting for “Rose” and mournfully wishing so many sisters didn’t have to live lives exactly like hers—and worse.
As Isaac points out, the film is full of powerful manhood themes. But, as with so many other things attributed to men, they all rest on the shoulders of the one poised, powerful, and imperiled female character—“Rose.”
We’ll consider issues of justice and faith that relate to our sisters at our first conference: JUST Gospel. Registration is now open!