The award-winning film Fences, an adaptation of the August Wilson play of the same name, was about relationships, generations, and ideals crashing together. It was a period piece about the state of black masculinity in the mid 19th century, and how it ripples through a family. Troy Maxson was a family man, providing for his own, telling stories and making those around him feel good with a lighthearted joke to ease a hard day’s work. But underneath the dedication was a layer of hurt, contempt, and abusiveness that showed up right after the punchlines dropped.
As someone whose father was foundational in my upbringing, I identified with how both sons were molded by his sternness and his humor. What struck me in this play was how Troy and my father were so similar and at the same time not at all. While my father always encouraged me to play sports, take up an instrument or anything that interested me, and do it to the best of my ability so I could one day make a living off of it, Troy constantly showed his disdain for the paths his sons took for themselves.
While my father was front and center at every piano recital or soccer game, Troy refused to see his older son Lyons perform with his band and blocked his younger son Cory from playing for his school’s football team, despite both of them having to be very good to get to where they were in life. For Troy, all of his fatherly duties stopped after putting a roof over his family’s head, never putting anything in their hearts. It was saddening and reaffirming at the same time, seeing a father who was completely disengaged from whom he brought into the world. His patriarchal brand of cruelty made the former conflicts I had with my own father seem quite miniscule in comparison. Troy wasn’t even around to raise his first son, and when it came time to raise another, he tried to selfishly live vicariously through him.
Whenever a parent is hard on their children, at the end of it all you expect them to justify their moments of raised voices and wagged fingers with the ultimate phrase, “I’m only doing this because I love you.” Cory never received that. Instead, he got an abrasive monologue from his father on why he shouldn’t care if him or anyone else doesn’t like him, “as long as they doing right by [him].” This complete disregard comes from a traumatic time in Troy’s early teenage years when he was brutally assaulted by his father, causing him to leave home at 14. That event set him on a path that hurt everyone that was on it, including the mother of his first child and his son. He talked about robbing people in order to get what he needed, and later on having to rob three times as much to provide for his family, which eventually landed him in prison. Because he didn’t have someone there truly caring for him, he transferred that emptiness to his future relationships.
There’s a line said by Troy’s best friend Bono, which serves as the thesis for the entire movie, “Some people build fences to keep people out…and other people build fences to keep people in. Rose wants to hold on to you all.” He was referring to how Rose was trying as hard as she could to hold on to the family she helped build, but the line was also directed at Troy. As a 35 year old man who’d never had the early support of his father, Lyons refused any and all advice Troy tried to give to him. He could no longer keep him fenced in, so he pushed him out, refusing to go see him play his heart out or even lend him $10 without a verbal sparring match.
As with Cory, he did his best to make up for not being there for his first son by pouring the dreams he was too old to acheive into the second. Unfortunately, he had poured so much of himself into his son that there was no room for Cory’s own aspirations, which Troy verbally and physically derailed every chance he got. The last interaction we see between the two of them was when one small show of defiance caused Troy to lash out. After a life of stifling his dreams, Cory refused to respect his father when he walked past him, so Troy stopped being a fence meant to keep him in, and turned into a fence to keep him out. Cory was exiled at 17 and was forced to make a way for himself, eventually becoming a Marine with all the respect and financial stability Troy wished he’d had his entire life. Having the fence gradually turned on him shaped his future, but that didn’t erase the pain he had to endure to get to that point.
Fences was definitely a story of it’s time, translated in Troy’s hesitation to support his sons’ endeavours that did not include some sort of trade, a vocation that required building something with your hands. Every time Cory brought up sports, Troy would bring up how the white man didn’t let enough black people succeed for him to waste his time trying out. The film is set in the 1950’s where segregation was very much a normality of American life. Now, it was very understandable back then for a black father to be skeptical of his children for choosing sports or music, as black players had to be damn near legendary to make a solid living off of either. However, Troy’s personal reservations about his son pursuing sports stemmed not from fear of discrimination, but remorse over his failure to succeed due to his time in prison robbing him of his prime baseball years.
On the flipside, I was raised in the 90’s and 2000’s, a time where I was surrounded by black men excelling in not only the arts and athletics, but in any other profession imaginable. Growing up in that climate, my dad had a much more positive outlook on life, and a stronger drive to see his children pursue whatever they wanted. Not once did I even hear him mention the white man as an excuse not to excel in anything I did. My father was a fence, but a protective one, keeping me in as a means of guarding my ambition, and doing his best to keep out self doubt.
Fences was a tragically beautiful movie that properly illustrated through strong dialogue and engaging characters how trauma can be inherited through generations. The film reminded me of my own father: the gestures and the liquor swigs, the crude jokes followed by the gut busting baritone laughs, the diehard dedication shown by the long hours at work, the commands that rattled the house, and the impromptu lectures given at the drop of a plate left too close to the edge of the counter. However, while they shared many traits that befit a father, I saw in my own what Troy lacked. Troy constantly moved through life with his heart half full, seeing his family as obligations rather than people deserving of love and compassion. All those other father-isms are hollow without that last component. So I’d like to thank August Wilson for penning such an engaging character who showed the relatable complexities of a (not the) black family in the 1950’s with such unfiltered reality. I’d like to thank Denzel Washington for bringing Troy to life, adding yet another dimension to an already complex character. Finally, I’d like to thank my own father, for being the fence that I needed, keeping the dreams of success in and keeping the ever prevalent negativity tinged with the sting of white supremacy out.
Author: Lorenzo Simpson
Editor: Capree Knox