I don’t think it’s just because my own father was a garbageman, like the character Denzel Washington plays in Fences, but that is a pretty amazing connection. My dad worked for the Sanitation Department of New York City for decades until he retired. Starting as a “sandman” which meant on the back of the truck tossing the trash in (when the cans were metal, there were no plastic trash bags, just the paper bags from the supermarket) to Superintendent.

I describe the movie as powerful and it is. Well-acted, superbly directed, and most of all, coming from a gut-wrenching play. You can tell it was a play first. And that Denzel Washington, who directed, wanted to stay as close to the source material as possible. The cast is tight, the shots are tight, the settings are minimal.

Viola Davis won best actress for her role as Rose and she deserved it. There was the special moment. A moment when something passes across her face, where she breaks, where she will never be the person she was before, and you can feel it. I have to wonder what she dug down and drew up for that scene, but it hit me. I haven’t been a big fan of Denzel Washington for a while, since he seemed to be playing the same guy– himself– but he was excellent as Floyd Maxson. No subtlety in the names there– Rose and Maxson.

The entire cast was superb. The writing, which of course makes everything, was wonderful. Based on the play by August Wilson.

As Rose finally admits, Floyd is larger than everyone. He filled their house and the yard, in which much of the action takes place. And the literal fence is being built, or rather, not built.

The focus is on pain and hard-earned learning passed from generation to generation. How much do we pass on, mostly unwittingly? How do we help and damage those who follow us? How do we act out our own failures in life?

Are we excused somewhat if our life was so hard for the pain we inflict on others? Whose life might not appear to be as hard?

I don’t like to give spoilers. To me the key to the ending was Cory, their son, deciding to go to the funeral. The ability of Cory to change, when Floyd couldn’t, was the key. There were many moments when Floyd Maxson could have put someone else first and he always failed in the moment. That doesn’t mean he was neglectful overall; quite the opposite. As he points out, often, he took care of his family. He put food on the table and a roof over their head. How much more can one want?

Here is a key exchange that shows the spectrum:

Cory: Hey pa!

Troy: Hmm?

Cory: Can I ask you a question?

[pause]

Cory: How come you ain’t never liked me?

Troy: Like you? What law is there sayin’ I got to like you?

Cory: None.

Troy: All right then. Don’t you eat every day? Answer me when I talk to you! Don’t you eat every day?

Cory: Yeah…

Troy: As long as you’re in my house you put a “Sir” on the end of it when you talk to me.

Cory: Yes, Sir.

Troy: You eat every day?

Cory: Yes, Sir.

Troy: You got a roof over you head?

Cory: Yes, Sir.

Troy: Got clothes on your back?

Cory: Yes, Sir.

Troy: Why you think that is?

Cory: ‘Cause of you?

Troy: [chuckles] Hell, I know it’s ’cause of me. But why do you think that is?

Cory: ‘Cause you like me?

Troy: Like you? I go outta here every morning, I bust my butt ’cause I like you? You’re about the biggest fool I ever saw. A man is supposed to take care of his family. You live in my house, feed your belly with my food, put your behind on my bed because you’re my son. It’s my duty to take care of you, I owe a responsibility to you, I ain’t got to like you! Now, I gave everything I got to give you! I gave you your life! Me and your Mama worked out between us and liking your black ass wasn’t part of the bargain! Now don’t you go through life worrying about whether somebody like you or not! You best be makin’ sure that they’re doin’ right by you! You understand what I’m sayin’?

 

Understanding is all there can be. We can’t change others. But coming to some sort of peace with an understanding, in many different ways. It is what it is.

My wife and I were talking about it afterward. We wondered how others viewed the movie. Do those who come from damage see it differently than those who don’t come from damage? Certainly, right? But what do they see?

Worth another viewing.