Denzel Washington Was My Daddy!
Every generation has a story about how the one before it could have done better while understanding and acknowledging that it did the best it could with what it had. Likewise, every preceding generation has a story about how the following one has lost values, become lazy, and can’t match up to the hard work they put in themselves. August Wilson gave theatre a script that fits such a perfect narrative, expressing those very stories; no matter what generational category you fall into. He named that narrative Fences.
Having won the 2010 Tony award for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Play for his portrayal as Troy Maxson, Denzel Washington took his directorial skills and brought August Wilson’s play to the silver screen. Having won for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Play the same year for the same play, fellow Tony award winner Viola Davis was right by his side reprising her role as Rose Maxson (Troy’s Wife).
The story follows the life and struggles therein of Troy as he navigates family, a midlife crisis, lower class living, broken dreams, and choices that create a space of tension, sadness, and sprinkles of joyous normalcy in a progressive yet (still) racially biased community. It is a story that most families of color will see and immediately feel a sense of relation as it serves as a mirror to the “generation vs generation” battle that has long since been a part of mankind’s existence. More specifically, it resonates with those who have had these conversations, remember these particular moments, and carry the burden of some of the same pains and regrets portrayed in this film.
Denzel has always been praised for being one of Hollywood’s most esteemed actors - black or otherwise. He has always been painted as the man who could play even a cat and capture audiences with utter amazement. Albeit, as the movie began, Denzel’s portrayal of Troy felt forced. It felt like I was watching Denzel desperately try to convey someone he simply wasn’t. It was as though I was watching Denzel ACT as Troy as opposed to seeing Troy and forgetting who Denzel (as a person) even was. Those who are actor’s might understand what I mean by that. Nevertheless, Troy’s character - no doubt due to the very architecture that August Wilson wrote the character to have - captured the very essence of my soul. And Denzel, didn’t altogether disappoint either.
Who was this hardworking, blue collar husband and father with the same routine every week? This man with great, yet unconventional, wisdom’s gained from personal hardships and disappointments. This man whose lens on life was just a tad bit foggy but clear enough for him to function. Who was he? Why did he feel so real, so close and eerily so familiar?
The answer was simple. I knew this man. I knew Troy Maxson. I knew his humor, his temper, his quirky way of explaining things that seemed to make sense only to him as the rest of us searched in the dark to understand his words. I had witnessed first hand how he valued life and how he categorized family and work. I realized that I knew Troy because Troy was a scripted reincarnation of a man that I myself called daddy. I remembered these very conversations and idioms. It was in that moment I applauded the genius of August Wilson.
The film - much like the play - was masterful at allowing us to see how one man’s experiences can both hurt and heal those who came into contact with him. As a father, Troy wanted nothing more than to guide his children into better. He wanted his son, Cory, to understand the value of hard work. The fear that anyone or anything could cause his son to venture through life with nothing was more than any father could bare. Troy had to make sure his son didn’t fall into the same ditches he, himself, had fallen into. Wasting years of life trying to dig himself out. Unfortunately, like most men, Troy used fear and force to try and guide his son on a path that had more to do with what TROY had and hadn’t done in life rather than a path that was true and authentic to who his son really was; pushing Cory away in the end.
I found Denzel captured me most in the moments of seriousness. It was the moments of everyday banter and intoxicated folly that Denzel was more than unbelievable. Even the character's constant use of the word "nigga" seemed like a strain for Denzel to say. However, as an overbearing, over expectant, and domineering father, Denzel came through. While the character of Cory eventually finds his own way, understanding what his father may have tried to do in the years of his youth, Troy’s methods left the relationship broken and scarred; wasting years of connection neither of them could get back.
It forced me to ask the question: Is it worth it for a father to lose his son if, in the end, his son learns independence? Watching this movie and living a similar narrative as Cory and Troy, I felt like there was a way to have both: Connection & positive results of one generation passing something on to the next. However, that wasn’t the case in this story.
As a husband, Troy focused on provision. Roof over head, food on the table, bills paid, and some good old fashion love making with the person he chose to share life with. However, it is in Troy’s selfishness, stubbornness, and a generation of men that came before him - with the same life view - that he soon discovers, sometimes all of what you can give doesn’t add up to all that you have taken and require to keep going. Cue Viola!
Viola was the quintessential actor as she so masterfully embodied Rose Maxson. A woman of forgotten dreams and a loving duty to be mother and wife and woman in a time where you sacrificed your individuality for the sake of keeping your family together. Rose’s strength to fight for unity in one’s house brought tears to my eyes as I looked at her and saw my own mother at times. I saw a woman who, even though her husband was not perfect, tried to paint him with the light and love that she knew him to have. She tried as best she knew to advocate for her son and stepson and - with the power only a wife could have in the position she accepted - she pushed back when pushing back was necessary and appropriate. While staying silent when sound would only make the situation worse. Alas, it isn’t until the end of the film when you see the true strength of Rose and the hundreds of women of her generation who vowed that by any means necessary, no child will ever be left behind. No family will ever be void of the love that only a mother can give. Lastly, no man will ever continually take from a woman that which he has not respectfully earned. In loyalty, diligence, self-control, and dutiful love. Bravo Viola!!! You set out in this career for the craft and you continue to make the craft proud.
Though the beginning felt forced, eventually Denzel’s portrayal grew on me in the two hour time frame of watching him live out Troy’s life. At some point, Troy came to the forefront. Although, Denzel was still a sparkle in his eye at all times. Nevertheless, the film (as was the play) was a blunt force traumatic exposé to the life of the black man and the black family living in a particular time or with a particular set of theologies. It was a chance to see, up close and personal, what forcing your desires on someone else can cause. It was an opportunity to realize that although we go through life on the knowledge and experiences that we have gained, our intentions for others lives are always much more different than the outcome.
This was an amazing film. The performances, overall, captured a reality that I could see myself in, because I lived it too. When all is said and done, Viola’s character gives such a poetic yet tragic realism to her son at the end of the film. It reminds me that no matter how far away we want to run from where we come from, we will always have a piece of those moments, as a foundation, to build upon who we are. It is her words to her son that truly encapsulate the struggle that the movie is (I'm sure) meant for us to see and deal with.
“You can’t be nobody but who you are…That shadow wasn’t nothing but you grown’ into yourself. You either got to grow into it or cut it down to fit you but that’s all you got to make a life with. That’s all you got to measure yourself against the world out there. Your daddy wanted you to be everything he wasn’t and at the same time he wanted you to be everything he was. Now I don’t know if he was right or wrong but I do know he meant to do more good than he meant to do harm.”
- Rose Maxson, Fences
Feature photo courtesy of Pressekonferanse 7's Flickr Page- Creative Common's License
Secondary photo courtesy of ABC Television Groups Photostream Flickr's Page -Creative Common License