In his 3rd theatrical directorial effort, Denzel Washington has managed to bring a new layer of life into August Wilson’s play, “Fences.” Reuniting most of the cast of their 2010 Broadway run, Washington, along with Viola Davis, as Troy and Rose Maxson, help to bring stellar and moving performances to this big screen adaptation of Wilson’s classic, garnering talk of possible Oscar nominations. Even more impressive, aside from the addition of a few locations, the film remains faithful to Wilson’s original text, maintaining most of the primary action in Maxson’s yard as per the play’s original locale. However, most importantly, Washington has managed to highlight issues of black manhood that despite being written about more than 30 years, and meant to have taken place 60 years ago, still remain relevant in our modern discourse.
The play, first performed in 1985, was the 3rd written in what came to be known as Wilson’s “Pittsburgh Cycle,” a series of plays that outlined the black experience in Pittsburgh throughout each decade of the 1900s. “Fences” focuses on the experience of the protagonist, Troy Maxson, his family, and friends in the 1950s.
Troy is a man who suffers from broken dreams. His understanding of manhood and fatherhood has in itself been disjointed by his experiences. He is the product of an absentee mother, an abusive father, and a series of systematic failures that ultimately hindered his ability to be the type of man he believes he is meant to be. He sees his role as a father as to put food on the table, pay the bills, and teach his sons what NOT to be, rather than what to be. He tells Rose with regards to their son, Corey “I don’t want him to be like me! I want him to move as far away from my life as he can get.” He sees himself as a failure. And considering his own experiences it is understandable. Having no education, he admits, several times, that he is illiterate. His inability to read ultimately affects his ability to make sound decisions for his family. He spent fifteen years in jail as the result of a botched robbery that ultimately kept him from playing a major role in his oldest son, Lyons’, life. And furthermore, even within the job he currently holds he struggles against a glass ceiling that exists as a result of the color of his skin. And although Rose tells him “Times have changed from when you was young, Troy. People change. The world’s changing around you and you can’t even see it…” , “Fences” begs the question, have they really?
In 1848, American educator Horace Mann stated, “Education then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is a great equalizer of the conditions of men…”. This sentiment was again echoed in 2011 by the US Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan. The idea here is that despite race, economic condition, or geographic location, our education system should allow all people equal opportunity. Education, should be equal all across the board. Yet on average, African American twelfth grade students read at the same level as white eighth grade students. Furthermore 18% of African American males face out of school suspension through grades K-12. This is 3.8 times higher than their white male counterparts. This means they are being removed from the classroom, and missing out on everyday educational opportunities. This leaves them in an uphill battle, upon their return, to catch up on material they could very possibly already have been struggling to master on the most basic levels. Resultantly, the equalizing opportunity that Mann spoke of in education is systematically failing those who most need the equalizing effect.
Yet and still, we carry onto the hope that if a student, despite all odds can earn a high school diploma, he or she has earned an equalizing opportunity. Unfortunately the road to graduation can be troublesome. 40% of the students expelled from school every year are African American. They are 2x more likely to drop out of high school than white students. And 68% of males in state and federal penitentiaries do not have a high school diploma.
But there is still life after prison. Troy was able to find a wife, and obtain a job. He owns a house and is managing to support his family. And while in 1957 this may have been an entirely attainable goal, there are quite a few blocks in place in 2016. Upon release from prison, many are placed on probation or parole with conditions that require them to attain sound, stable housing, which is where the problem begins. In many states, where families are receiving help from HUD (Department of Housing and Urban Development) allowing a former felon to stay in the residence is grounds for eviction and revocation of the housing assistance program. A second condition of release requires the former convict to secure a job and pay for their parole/probation at every visit. If they fail to do so, there parole can be revoked and be sent back to prison. Yet numerous jobs include the question “have you ever been convicted of a crime” and can legally use it as grounds for which not to hire the applicant. Despite the advocacy of campaigns such as the Ban the Box campaign which calls for the removal of that question on job, housing, insurance, loan, and public assistance applications, no legislation has yet been enacted.
While the role of any adult is to protect and provide for their family, society typically places the burden of expectation of on the shoulders of the man, gauging his masculinity on his ability to do so. The hindrances that plagued Troy and kept him from feeling he was able to reach his full potential in order to be type of man his sons could emulate in 1957, were relevant enough for August Wilson to address them in 1985, and continue to be relevant in 2016. Now by no means is “Fences” simply a cautionary tale of black manhood. The web it weaves delves way deeper into the ever evolving black experience here in America. And while we can feel “safe’ in the idea that it is “just a story” or was the experience “way back then” the similarities to today with regards to not just black manhood, but issues of the black family, black womanhood, marriage and relationships, mental illness and incarceration, and black economic opportunity are unignorable. Whether or not you’ve already seen or read “Fences” as a play, it’s film debut is a “can’t miss.” It will leave everyone with something to talk about.