Film & Television

Attention Must Be Paid; Viola Davis and Denzel Washington Shine in ‘Fences’

Washington, of whom I confess I have never been the greatest fan, is riveting — somehow pathetic and terrifying all at once. Once named People’s “Sexiest Man Alive,” the actor allows himself to be scruffy, middle-aged and doughy. Davis, whom I believe is one of our best actresses working in any medium today, sets her own sky-high bar higher than ever. She has several of the film’s most powerful monologues, and her emotions are so raw and so naked that they are utterly unforgettable. She received a Golden Globe for this performance Sunday night. I simply cannot imagine that a well-deserved Oscar won’t follow. (In truth, Washington deserves one as well, but he will likely be overshadowed by Casey Affleck’s stunning work in Manchester by the Sea.)

In the movie’s earliest scenes, we see real love and intense attraction between Troy and Rose. They are on the verge of happiness with Troy having achieved some success at work (he challenges the system and is offered a job as the city’s first black driver, an easier and better-paying job) and their son’s potential scholarship. But, Troy is his own worst enemy. He can’t let go of the tragic mythology he’s created for himself. And as he destroys his own life, he takes his family down with him. Eventually, Troy chases his son away and is emotionally abandoned by his wife. “You a womanless man now,” she tells him. The only relationship he has left is with death, whom he dares to come and wrestle with him, raging out the window during a thunder storm, like a desperate and defeated King Lear.

In this scene in particular, as well as in a sad epilogue where Davis once again gets a chance to shine, Wilson asks the same question that Miller did forty years earlier. Classical dramatic tragedy is built around an important person with a single fatal flaw. Troy Maxson, like Willy Loman before him, is not an important person. And, as far as flaws are concerned, his character has more deficits than credits. So, can his story truly be a tragedy? Fences answers this with a resounding “Yes.” One hopes that most people are not brought down as far as Troy is by dead dreams. But, everyone can relate to bad decisions and missed chances. Potential has an expiration date and tragedy is not limited to the rich and famous.

In the end, Rose, like Linda, demands that her family — if not the greater world — stop and pay attention to her husband’s life. A man, even a deeply flawed one, is not a dog to be buried and forgotten. Gabriel assures us that when the time comes, St. Peter will find Troy’s name in his book and the gates of heaven will open. Although Troy creates a hell on Earth for himself and those he loves, there will be a “Hallelujah” at last.

 

 

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