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"Mother to Son": on 'Fences’ and Climbin’ Crystal Stairs

 

 

By Simone C. Drake | @SimoneCDrake | with thanks to NewBlackMan (in Exile)

 

 

Wednesday, February 28, 2017.

 

 

I have read reviews of Denzel Washington’s film adaptation of August Wilson’s play Fences, framed by reviewers and general moviegoers who viewed the film with their fathers or fathers viewing with their sons. I could have insisted my husband take our thirteen year old son, the oldest of our three sons, to see the film. After all, the film’s most prominent motif is that of fathering and the sociological realities and psychological traumas that come into play when race, gender, and class intersect in that familial construct. But, I had just taught the play fall semester in an “Introduction to African American Literature” course, and I really wanted to see the film, so I took my son with me.

 

Upon arrival at the movie theatre, my son insisted he had changed his mind and instead wanted to see Sing with my husband and my younger sons. He even tried to slyly join his brothers in their theatre house. I cannot be sure what my son thought of the film. He shifted in the reclining seat several times during the movie. When I whispered to him periodically explaining historical or social context, he nodded ever so slightly, barely acknowledging I spoke to him, eyes directed straight ahead at the screen. When the film credits ended, he asked if I was ready to go and abruptly bounded down the stadium stairs. When I caught up to him and asked what he thought, he simply mumbled it was “okay” and proceeded toward the exit.

 

I would imagine that, to my son, Troy Maxson’s hardness, stubbornness, and selfishness toward his sons and, in particular, his teenage son, Cory, made my son think about his relationship with his father. My husband is not Troy Maxson, but to a budding teenage boy, their disagreements and testosterone-driven arguments likely struck my son as quite similar to those between Troy and Lyon and especially between Troy and Cory.

 

Troy actually shares much more in common with my grandfather, who was born just shy of ten years after the fictional Troy and also grew up in the Jim Crow South prior to leaving to fight both Jim Crow and fascism as a trailblazing African American officer in a segregated military. I nonetheless doubt that critical difference stopped my son from suspending time and place to see himself and his father on the screen.

 

The suspension of time and space is indicative of the genius of August Wilson and the superb directorial skills of Washington who played Troy alongside Viola Davis as his wife Rose, as the two reprised their Broadway performance from 2010. The entire cast skillfully brought the characters to life on the screen, compelling the audience to feel their pain, losses, frustrations, and brief moments of joy and satisfaction.

 

Washington faced a tall order directing the film adaptation of one of the most celebrated American playwrights and of a play that has been performed thousands of times. What Washington did through film was bring Wilson to the everyday people he wrote about. As a film showing in movie theatres, Fences became far more accessible to the masses than it has been as a theatrical production, and certainly as a Broadway production.

 

Furthermore, when moving from stage to set, the dynamism of The Hill, the Pittsburgh neighborhood Wilson so lovingly chronicled, the audience gets even more of a connection to the characters. The shotgun house, the children playing in the street, and the back porch stoop of a ramshackled backyard undergird the dialectic of pain and joy effused through the characters.

 

Fences pulls the audience into a time and space when mass movements for civil rights were launching throughout the South and the masses of Black folk who migrated from those cities faced de facto segregation in the North. In this time and space Wilson offers a complicated story of what it means to be human. Through the writing and performance it becomes difficult to simply see Troy as a murderer, brute father, and adulterer. This is not to say Wilson proposes Troy’s transgressions be ignored or excused; instead he offers a complex black maleness. The pain of being raised by his own callous father emanates from Troy as he tells his childhood story to his friend Bono and Lyons, yet he models his father’s behavior with his own two sons.

 

Wilson tempers this inter-generational repetition of social dysfunction, however, through Troy’s undying devotion to his brother, Gabriel, who suffered head trauma during World War II. Troy cares for his brother and is uncritical of his infantile and delusional behavior. In perhaps the most compelling scene of tenderness in the film, Troy feeds Gabriel a meal during a visit to the institution he unwittingly committed him to due to his own illiteracy.

 

This depth of humanness makes it difficult to judge Troy for his dream crushing and infidelities, particularly when he delivers his “I need to feel like a man” speech to Rose on the occasion of revealing he will soon be the father of another woman’s child. By then, viewers know that Troy is broken.

 

Yet what is so marvelous about Wilson’s ability to reach deep down into the souls of his characters is his creation of Rose Maxson. It is Rose who dismisses a familiar black male crisis narrative that subordinates and erases black women’s pain, suffering, hopes, and dreams. Troy might be broken, but he must be accountable, too. Rose declares Troy a “womanless man” when she agrees to raise his motherless child after the child’s mother died during the delivery. In spite of embodying 1950s tropes of domesticity, she is not the mythic strongblackwoman who moves through life unaffected by inequality and wrongs. Rose is therefore why Fences is just as much a mother-to-son film as it is a father-to-son one. My son saw a cast of black men and black women in all their humanness as they climb Langston Hughes’s proverbial crystal stairs.

 

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Simone C. Drake is Associate Professor of African American and African Studies at The Ohio State University.  She is the author of Critical Appropriations: African American Women and the Construction of Transnational Identity (LSU Press) and When We Imagine Grace: Black Men and Subject Making by the University of Chicago Press.

 

Other essays from Simone C. Drake:

‘Cause I Slay: A Beyoncé Timeline for February 2016

Witnessing While White and the Violence of Silence

 

"Mother to Son": on 'Fences’ and Climbin’ Crystal Stairs

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