After seeing it, I did what I usually do. I took to Twitter: “Fences is alarmingly straightforward,” I wrote, “yet complicated all at once. I don't know what to do with it, other than sit still, and shut up.”
I left the theater speechless that night. Not solely because the screenplay is emotionally gut-wrenching (which it is), but because there are just some works that make plain the inadequacy of summary more readily than others. Fences is such a work—unflinching, mature, surprisingly radical in its approach, and best honored, I’d say, by respectful quiet in its presence.
By the time this piece meets its audience, it will be Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Social media newsfeeds will in all likelihood be flooded with tributes of various forms: comparisons to Gandhi; photos of Dr. King giving speeches in sharp, pressed suits; pull-quotes from his better-known writings that champion his commitment to nonviolence. It will be a day of acknowledgement, a day of genuine appreciation, and a day of trying to recalibrate ourselves within the context of our political present.
It will also be a day of revisionism, a day where many will sidestep the core aspects of King’s platform that were both disruptive and strongly critical of the attempts—even while he lived—to temper and sanitize his efforts to combat systemic racial inequality. It’s far easier to discard this legacy of criticism, to forget that King placed responsibility for the persistence of institutionalized racism equally on the doorsteps of the Klan and “the white moderate who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” Recognizing this would require acknowledging, too, that this form of obstruction is an equally grave betrayal, and that it has continued well into our present moment.
But what does this have to do with Fences? Well, quite a lot. The screenplay is as much about being outcast, wounded, and frustrated as it is a story that resists reductive conclusions about the full humanity of blackness, and of the difficulty of thriving within a dominant culture that, if you’re non-white (and especially non-white and poor), remains largely indifferent to your well-being. I was impressed, too, by how much the film as a whole is uninterested in upholding anything resembling respectability politics: the characters are simply who they are—multilayered, difficult to predict, and imperfect in the way we should expect fully formed human beings to be. Each character harbors his or her own hopes and private pain, which familial intimacy does not allow to remain private for very long.
Fences boasts a small but superb cast. Adapting the August Wilson stage play for the screen was no small feat for Denzel Washington, who directed the film and plays the title character, Troy Maxson. Troy is a sanitation worker in 1950s Pittsburgh, whose dream of becoming a major league baseball player was killed years before: by the time professional teams had finally begun to admit black athletes, he was deemed too old to play, despite his natural skill. The repercussions of his perceived failings reach deep, going far beyond Troy himself, as his bitterness slowly bleeds into his relationships with his sons and with his wife Rose (Viola Davis), his fiercely strong and loving partner over the difficult years.
It’s not unlike Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart, in that it is in part a story about a powerful man steadily unraveling, though ironically powerless to stop it. It’s about aging, too, to the man’s own horror and denial, and to the pained bewilderment of those he loves and those who love him in return. But none of these personal tragedies, boiling in the pressure cooker of the Maxson family’s life, exist only on an individual scale. Each disappointment and betrayal touches another in the household—differently for each person, but with the full weight and darkness of grief.
The great poet Langston Hughes suggested that a dream deferred will ultimately explode. This rings wholly true with the thematic concerns raised in Fences, and with the broader contemporary resonances that the screenplay gestures toward: less than sixty years removed from the Civil Rights Movement, many in the United States still live with the dream of having our humanity fully recognized in all respects—dreams acknowledged, justice upheld. Though closer to this goal in a few significant regards, we are still a considerable distance away from seeing this more fully actualized. And it is, at times, difficult to gauge how much has actually changed beyond the obvious, when movements such as Black Lives Matter are still widely and routinely slandered, though officially recognized chapters of the movement follow the nonviolent protest methods of their predecessors from the fifties and sixties.
Which brings me back to Martin Luther King Jr., remembered by history and beloved by many, but tamed and repackaged to comfort the white imagination (as poet and essayist Claudia Rankine has termed it)—progressive and conservative alike. He’s been made easy to celebrate and quote out of context, because he has been revised and rewritten as nonthreatening. Which is, of course, absurd. Nonentities don’t get assassinated. They are simply ignored, then forgotten. But Dr. King was complicated, and dangerous enough, and brilliant, and he did the very best he could with what he had, and with those who were willing to labor alongside him while he lived.
Though not all may see it now, the dream is beginning to explode, albeit slowly. “I Have a Dream” is widely remembered for good reason, but it is usually remembered for its climax, not the premise King begins with in the first place: that black people in America have been handed a “bad check” in lieu of the unalienable rights the Founders promised, and that this pledge was a sacred obligation. Though history confirms for us that at the time the Founders didn’t actually mean that all are created equal, they did say it, and it’s far too late to take it back. The jig is up. “Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy…to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.”
Fences has returned to the public at a key moment, partly for more obvious political reasons. But it also returns at a time when its unfazed subversiveness can catch a second wind. A film set in the fifties that focuses exclusively on a handful of black lives, and where the dictates of white America are rendered (for a duration) incidental and unworthy of prolonged notice, is still remarkably radical even by today’s standards. And its subjects—the family it so humanely presents with complexity, clear thought, and boldness—is worthy of our close, unguarded attention. All of it is.
Viola Davis said it best, as only she can: “I think sometimes what people miss about black people is that we’re complicated, that we are indeed messy, that we do the best with what we’re given. We come into the world exactly like you.”
Amen, sis. Speak on it.