Saturday, March 11, 2017

August Wilson's "Fences"

In our annual winter visit to Alameda, an island in the San Francisco Bay area right next to Oakland, we try to see as many movies as we can in the town’s wonderful cinema complex that features a beautifully restored old theater as well as a number of modern screening rooms. This year we were able to see three films nominated for Best Picture for 2016: “Fences”, “LaLa Land”, and “Hidden Figures”. I’ll begin with “Fences” and try to get to the others in future posts.

“Fences” stars Denzell Washington who also directed this film adaptation of the stage play of the same name by August Wilson. Actually, “Fences” is one of a series of ten stage plays by Wilson about life in a Black neighborhood in Pittsburgh. Wilson wrote the screenplay for this film and received a nomination for best screenplay despite having died in 2005.*

Denzell Washington does a great job as the lead character Troy, a garbage man for the city of Pittsburgh, who has never gotten over the fact that he was born too early to break the Major League Baseball color barrier. He is angry and bitter despite the devotion of his loving wife, played beautifully by Viola Davis.

Troy also has two grown sons neither of whom is he able to appreciate or even understand. The eldest son, the product of his first marriage, is a musician whom the father will never go to hear. The other son is a seventeen-year old high school football standout who is being recruited to play in college, an idea totally opposed by his father. Troy has toiled for years to support his wife and children, as well as a brother who was permanently mentally damaged by a head wound while serving in WW II. Troy is a man who understands his responsibilities despite the fact that he ran away from home in Alabama at the age of 14 after a brutal beating by his own father.

Watching the story play out on the screen I could not help but think that the situation of Troy in Pittsburg was not much different from my own father’s in New York City’s borough of Queens back in 1956. Like Troy my father had somehow managed to buy a home in a poor to lower middle-class neighborhood. We lived in a two-bedroom apartment with one tiny bathroom. There was a kitchen with an old table where we had our meals. There was no dining room. It makes me laugh today when I watch home shows on TV where the young people insist on granite or better countertops. We had no counters at all.

My father was born about the same time as Troy to parents who had migrated to New York City from impoverished, rural Italy. He was of that second generation that had one foot in the old world and one in the new. In a sense, Troy’s situation was similar. He was an immigrant to industrial Pittsburg from rural Alabama. After running away from home Troy turned to robbery to survive but wound up in prison where he learned to play baseball.

But August Wilson’s Troy is a man who was never able to fulfill his baseball dream. He is a strong talented man but still winds up in Pittsburg working on a garbage truck. My father was a mechanical genius who could fix practically anything but never even got through grade school. He was working in his father’s store when he got married but went to work in a defense plant when WWII broke out. After the war he became a shop supervisor or foreman, and even invented a couple of valuable processes for which he got little reward or recognition. 

There were so many things about Troy that reminded me of my father. He was outgoing and sociable. He had many friends with whom he talked, drank, and played cards. They all liked him. My mother died when I was just 11 and though my father would never forget her, he soon found another woman in much the same way as Troy did.

I was 17 in 1956, the same age as Troy’s younger son. I was not an athlete but I was an outstanding student. In both cases our teachers were expecting and urging us to go to college, something our fathers did not value or understand. Troy’s son became a Marine but I went to Fordham University the same school that Denzell Washington attended.

August Wilson’s film is about the Black experience in America but Wilson also claimed that he wrote to show Whites that Blacks experienced many of the same things as they did. He wrote,

I think my plays offer (white Americans) a different way to look at black Americans," … "For instance, in Fences they see a garbageman, a person they don't really look at, although they see a garbageman every day. By looking at Troy's life, white people find out that the content of this black garbageman's life is affected by the same things – love, honor, beauty, betrayal, duty. Recognizing that these things are as much part of his life as theirs can affect how they think about and deal with black people in their lives.

He certainly succeeded in "Fences." The film did not win the Best Picture award, but could have. Denzell Washington did not win the Academy Award for Best Actor but his performance was also good enough to win. Viola Davis should have won the award for Best Actress but apparently she and her advisors decided to seek only the nomination for Best Supporting Actress. She played it safe but her performance was much better than Emma Stone’s in “LaLa Land”.

* Wilson's was from a bi-racial family. His father was a German immigrant but Wilson took his Black mother's name after the father walked out.


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