I don’t much go to movies. Really never have. The list of blockbuster movies I’ve never seen is long, a veritable parade of movie Americana. It goes way back. I’ve never seen ET, Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, Titanic, any of the series flicks like Terminator, The Hobbit and Harry Potter, and any but the original Star Wars, or Star Trek, or Spiderman or Batman, and that’s just the ones I can immediately recall. Of late, mainly just the Cohen brothers or Woody Allen can lure me into a theater of my own volition (the family, particularly the wife, provides the balance of my movie-going motivation). The rest of the movies I watch are on Netflix or the Amazon Firestick, and they trend more to indie and foreign films.
But I had a Saturday afternoon to kill in Athens, Georgia last weekend, and my daughter got us some tickets to see Fences at the Cine, a movie house run by the non-profit Athens Film Art Institute. It’s a cool little theater with a European art house vibe. So hip until the hipsters probably disdain it. The Institute sells memberships that provide discounts on movies, along with free popcorn, but charges reasonable prices for tickets and concessions to the general public. They had tall boy PBR for two bucks. I got a tall boy and some popcorn and settled into my seat alongside the other patrons (lily white and mostly female) for what I expected would be quite a slog—the film is over two hours long—and I wasn’t particularly interested in a film that I assumed was about some aspect of the Black Civil Rights struggle in the US.
Denzel Washington, a favorite actor of mine, directed and starred in the flick, so I was hopeful it wouldn’t be as bad as I feared.
It wasn’t. It was one of the best movies I’ve seen in years. Though it was set in a Black ghetto in 1950’s Pittsburgh, and all the characters, major and minor, are Black, the movie is not a Black movie. It is a movie about people being people, struggling to survive, facing life’s challenges the best way they know how. The movie could have been set in an Irish or Italian ghetto in Boston or New York in the late 19th Century. Or a Jewish ghetto in Warsaw in the early 20th. Which is not to say that Blacks in America haven’t faced (and don’t continue to face) an especially brutal set of challenges, even after achieving freedom, even after years of Affirmative Action. It’s to say that Black individuals are no different than the individuals of any other group in the way they face challenges and overcome them. This isn’t a movie about a Black family. It’s a movie about a family.
Troy (Denzel Washington) and Rose (Viola Davis) and their son, Cory (Jovan Adepo), form an archetypical nuclear family. Troy has another, older, son by another mother, Lyons (Russell Hornsby). Nothing out of the ordinary there, no matter the ethnic group. And later, sires a daughter by Alberta, Troy’s mistress who we never see, but know about mainly through Troy’s discussions with his best buddy, Jim (Stephen Henderson). And from his confession to Rose about the child, the ensuing argument forming one of the climaxes of the movie. Still, there’s nothing particularly Black here. It’s not just Black people who meet life’s challenges by making life more challenging.
Take my own lily-white, upper-middle-class family. All three of my sisters (I have no brothers) had children out of wedlock, and Mom, too, if the peculiar circumstances of my birth presume an extramarital affair. All, including Mom, have divorced at least once (even the gay sister). Only one is now married. People make bad decisions, even people who have been afforded every advantage in life. Or maybe, especially people who have been afforded every advantage in life. It ain’t a Black thang.
With any relationship, within or without the family (though the emotional forces are magnified within the family), there is love and hate, attraction and repulsion—a moveable feast of an emotional smorgasbord. In short, there is tension, always tension. Fences explores it all–the relationships and the emotions they elicit. That it does so with such a sublime, clear-eyed precision is what makes the movie great.
Troy loves his son, Cory. He wants the best for him, which for Troy means getting a good steady job like he has, working for the sanitation department, or something similar. Troy might have been good enough to play baseball professionally, but never found out, because of his having spent several years in jail for a robbery gone bad in his youth, and, he claims, for the color of his skin. His friend Jim is a bit skeptical about the latter part, thinking that it may have been he was just too old by the time he got out of jail. Troy doesn’t want Cory to have anything to do with playing football in college. Maybe because he fears the kid might fail. Maybe because he’s jealous. It’s hard to tell whether it’s love or jealousy animating a father’s relationship with his son. Just like in every family.
After one of their more heated arguments (of many), Cory asks his dad why he doesn’t like him. Troy explains that he doesn’t have to like him. That he would still go to work every day and bring his paycheck home to his mom at every week’s end, and do all the other things he does, no matter whether he liked Cory or not. This is good dad/parent stuff. Because it really doesn’t matter that a parent like their child. It matters that a parent loves their child. And love is a verb.
Out in the back yard while he’s drinking gin with his buddy Jim and Rose comes out and interrupts them, Troy launches into a diatribe about how he gives everything he’s got to the family; that he leaves nothing on the table. And then a few days, maybe weeks later, he has to confess to Rose that he impregnated another woman, and that he’s not willing to end things with her. Apparently, Troy exaggerated his level of contribution in his diatribe. It makes for delicious ambiguity. That’s how life is.
The confession causes a huge fight, a bit of scuffling even. Rose cries, and wipes snot all over her face, and delivers an impassioned speech about how she, too, gave it her all for the family; about how, she too, gave up dreams for the sake of the family. It’s a speech as powerful as Jack Nicholson’s in A Few Good Men. Viola Davis holds her own and more against Denzel Washington, who is utterly brilliant.
The movie is Chekovian. It finds drama in ordinary lives lived ordinarily. It doesn’t resolve conflicts, at least not in the way most movie-goers expect. Rose doesn’t kick Troy out when he cheats. Troy doesn’t quit bringing home a bag of potatoes and a pound of lard each week with his paycheck. Life for them mumbles, bumbles and stumbles along. There’s good and bad in everybody. We all deserve grace and damnation.
When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awards the Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress nod to the movie and its two principals, don’t believe a word that’s said about it being about time that a Black flick depicting Black characters won. The movie might get the nod because it has Black people in it, something I know Denzel Washington would abhor. But it’s not a Black flick. It’s a human flick. If you’re one of those, it’d be hard not to enjoy it.
But who am I kidding? That stupid movie, La La Land, yet another movie about making movies, will probably win. Because the Academy is nothing if not narcissistic, like its members. Which perhaps explains why so many of the actors giving speeches tonight will say disparaging things about the new President. They don’t like the competition.