From my perspective, the movie “Fences” is staged like a play, which is fine with me though it was a little offputting to others.
“Fences” is an ensemble of characters but the spotlight is on Troy Maxson, the teller of tall tales and the holder of unrequited dreams.
Everyone is fenced in by something, but there also fences that separate them from some things and some people. In the character Bono’s words, “Some people build fences to keep people out and other people build fences to keep people in.”
Troy wonders why his wife Rose wants a fence, ‘What is she keeping out?” Bono speculates that perhaps she is trying to hold on to him, to keep him in.
Bono later wonders out loud to Troy why he chose hardwood to build that fence when softwood would have been so much easier to handle. Troy has only known the hardwood of life. Even his favorite game, baseball, is about hardball. We learn throughout the movie that Troy’s life has never been soft.
Movies often require the viewer to suspend disbelief. This movie presents a reality to which many African Americans, a few generations back, can relate. No need for them to suspend disbelief because the movie grabs you by the cultural throat right out the gate and it won’t let go.
The movie opens with two men hanging on the back of a garbage truck. They are garbage men (whom we later learn are Troy and Bono), men who spend their days picking up and dumping the refuse of others of which some residue surely settles on them. Life has not been a bed of roses for them. Life has dumped its garbage of hate and denial and exclusion on them and they have learned how to ignore the stench.
‘Fences” is more than the movie title; it is the thematic thread that slowly unravels in the movie.
This is Troy’s story. The influence of the wife is sensed more that stated. Still, her interjected comments as he tells his tall tales remind us that she does have a voice, a part in their story. She, Rose, appears to be periperal but near the end of the movie we see that she has been the linchpin that held everything together inside the fence of their marriage.
Everyone is in survivor mode.
Troy is fenced in by his marriage to Rose, yet there is a fence that separates Troy and Rose in the marriage. It is the fence of loss, the loss of a father who should have loved him; the loss of a dream of playing baseball in a time that “never should have been too early;” it is the loss of the innocence of youth at fourteen when he became responsbile for the rest of his life.
He loves his wife. He brings his paycheck home to her every payday. He laughs and flirts with her in front of his friend. He loves his wife, supports his family, but loss keeps that fence in place between what he has and what he wants and what Rose thinks is in place.
Troy feels burdened by the responsibilities of the marriage while Rose believes she has given up all that she is for the marriage.
It all comes to a head when Troy confesses his infidelity to Rose and tries to explain why he has found freedom in another woman’s arms: “It’s just [Alberta] gives me a different idea, a different understanding about myself. I can step out of this house [this fence]. I can be a part of myself I ain’t never been. I can sit up in her house and laugh; I can laugh out loud. I can forget about myself!”
Troy states, in his own frustrating way, that the other woman allows him to be a different man. He sees himself in a holding pattern, responsible for his family but along the way he forgot about imself: “I done locked myself into a pattern trying to take care of you all that I forgot about myself.”.
Rose realizes in this agonizing gut punched moment of Troy’s revelation of not only infidelity but also an impending birth, she realizes that she has placed all her feelings, all her wants and needs inside of Troy. While he has wrestled with the realization that he has been standing in the same spot for eighteen years, she also has stood in that same spot with him. He repays her giving up of herself with his unfaithfulness. Rose does her best to explain her own hopes and dreams, how she buried all her feelings in him and held on to him even through her darkest times. She lets Troy know that, yes, he gives to them, but he has also taken from them as well.
Rose has allowed herself to be subsumed by Troy in order that together they might survive. Now she hears from him, after she has given up her freedom for his survival, that he had to step outside her fence to find respite with another woman. This a brutal slap in Rose’s face, made even more brutal by the fact that Troy now expects her to give him room to breathe that fine air of freedom because he has no intention of giving up Alberta.
In the final scenes of the movie, Rose defines her place in that fence of marriage to their son, Corey: “I wanted a house that I could sing in, and that’s what your daddy gave me. I didn’t know to keep up his strength I had to give up little pieces of me. … It was my choice. It was my life and I didn’t have to live it like that.but that’s what life offered me in the way of being a woman and I took it.”
Over the kitchen sink in the Maxson house hangs a picture of an European Jesus. The gospel song, “Jesus, Be A Fence All Around Me,” plays in one scene. Rose is almost always in the kitchen, cooking or cleaning. She offers food to every person who comes to the house. She is the nurturer, the sustainer of life within the fence of their marriage, giving of her own strength in order that her family might continue to survive.
Life continues to throw hardballs at Troy. Alberta dies in childbirth. Rose agrees to raise the innocent baby but Troy is now, in her own words, “womanless.” Gabe, his brother (for another blog) is now in an institution. Bono, his friend, plays dominoes with new friends. Rose has stepped into a new fence, the Church. Troy drinks alone in a bar.
The physical fence is complete but it is the only thing still intact. Nothing else is the same. Not Troy, not Rose, not the fence that once surrounded their marriage.