“I’ve Been Standing With You”: Fences


Troy Maxson can’t accept who he is and where he is in life.

After overcoming a troubled childhood and young adulthood and a stint in prison, he’s a settled family man in Pittsburgh. It’s the 1950s, and he’s a black man, but he’s doing his best. He gets a promotion at his sanitation job. He has his wonderful wife, Rose (Viola Davis), of eighteen years.

But he can’t be satisfied.

His 17 year old son is wanting to go into sports, something he could never pursue himself because he was black. Sports will let his son down like they let him down, Troy rationalizes. So he puts a stop to it. Like a good father would.

His wife isn’t giving him everything that he wants, either. You can’t fault a man for wanting to feel full, Troy rationalizes. So he finds another woman. Rose should be able to understand.

Life hasn’t given Troy what he wants, and it keeps giving him things he can’t accept. Things that remind him of his past failures. Things that leave him bitter.

So what do you do with things you can’t accept? You lock them out. You lock the things you want in. Maybe you build a fence around them.

Accepting circumstances and people is one of the many themes reflected on in Fences, directed by and starring Denzel Washington, based on the Pulitzer Prize winning play by August Wilson. Going into the film, I only knew that Fences was a famous play, and both Viola Davis and Denzel Washington had played the parts on Broadway. I didn’t know the story, and that made the experience much better. I wasn’t focused on how the play translates to screen. I was completely engaged in the tumultuous story playing out before me.

Fences is one of the deepest character studies I have ever seen. Troy and Rose Maxson became as real to me as my family beside me. The slow reveal of Troy’s conflicted personality and motivations made me jump from sympathy to rage to sadness- sometimes all in the same scene. Rose’s sentiments were real and her journey was one that is universal for so many, yet equally as complex and conflicting. Confronting her husband and his selfishness- “I’ve been standing with you. I gave eighteen years of my life to stand in the same spot as you!… What about my life?” will stay with me more than any line I’ve heard from a film all year. All the side characters feel lived in and dynamic. That’s purely from the writing, not to mention the acting (which we’ll get to later).

Simply put, there is a reason this play won a Pulitzer. Don’t just take my word for it. See it yourself.

Denzel’s directing here is never flashy. The film, honestly, doesn’t take full advantage of its cinematic medium. This was a story made for the stage, and the film simply cannot shake that. Yes, the close-ups on the actors do make the story more intimate. But the film still takes place in no more than four locations, and if you aren’t prepared to basically watch a play when you sit down in the theater, it might surprise you how theatrical the film plays. So while there might not be a real justification for putting this story to screen, it does mean the story is being exposed to more people, which makes it worth it. I, for one, am grateful.

Saying Denzel Washington and Viola Davis are fine actors is kind of like saying the sun will rise today, but great work should be recognized, and they do great work here. They have both had the advantage of playing these characters before on the stage, so I’ll let the Academy decide if that is grounds for denying them Oscar nominations. If you only consider their performances, though, Oscars for both.

Watching their performances, each time a new revelation was made (and trust me, there are plenty), I waited in tense anticipation for what the character’s reactions would be. Each time, they were realistic, one I could imagine myself having, and yet astonishing to me at the same time. The sheer volume of their emotions carried me to the finale that is a poignant reflection on legacy.

I can’t say enough good things about Fences. I can’t stop thinking about it either. I urge everyone to see it. It is a tour de force on numerous levels, and one of the most human stories put to screen this year.

-Madeleine D

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