“Some people build fences to keep people out, other people
build fences to keep people in.”
And so Bono (Stephen Henderson), the best friend
of Troy (Denzel Washington), gives his buddy something to think about
in his ongoing project to accede to his wife's request to build a
fence in the backyard. The
building of the fence becomes a metaphor for everybody involved.
Troy, a kind of black Archie Bunker, is constantly spouting off
his homespun philosophy of life to his family, his best friend Bono,
or really anybody else within earshot.
He makes way too much of his pull-himself-up-by-his-bootstraps
self-image, especially since he is a garbage man who has only just
recently worked himself up to driver.
(In post-war Pittsburgh, it was assumed that the white guys
would be the drivers and the black guys the ones riding the back of
the truck, picking up the cans. Troy
figured he could drive as well as anybody else.)
Eventually, we learn that Troy gave up a once-promising
athletic career because, he says, lack of opportunity for the black
man, but when his patient wife, Rose (Viola Davis), points out that
things are different now because of Jackie Robinson and Hank Aaron and
those after them, Troy scoffs at their abilities, and says he was much
better than them, and so were the other players in the Negro Leagues,
like Josh Gibson. This, of
course, is an argument nobody can win, but good ol' Bono at least
feeds Troy's oversized ego by assuring him that yes, Troy could really
hit that ball in his prime. Out of the park.
But Troy's reverse racism is evident throughout: he's convinced
that all white men just want to keep the black man down, and therefore
all whites are despicable. And
he'll loudly proclaim his views to anyone who will listen.
Yes, Troy now carries around a lot of anger.
He left home very young because he couldn't get along with his
father, and wound up living in a makeshift homeless shelter, where he
learned to steal, and eventually went to prison.
But at least that's where he met Bono.
Before prison, he had married and had a son, Lyons (Russell
Hornsby), who now comes around on Friday evenings to borrow ten
dollars from Troy, because Lyons is a musician who wants very badly to
earn a living that way, but can't quite make ends meet.
No word on what happened to Lyons' mother, but she's obviously
out of the picture, because we learn that Troy met Rose after prison,
and though Troy will loudly and often proclaim how lucky he is to have
Rose (and he is), still, he is unfaithful to her.
And eventually, he has to tell her, because his lover is going
to have a baby. Of course
Rose is devastated, and so is Cory (Jovan Adepo), her son by Troy.
Troy has already aliented Cory by refusing to allow him to play
football and talk to a college recruiter, because Cory is supposed to
work at the corner grocery store. In one argument, Cory claims that
Troy is afraid his son would prove to be a better athlete than he was.
But Troy argues back that he just doesn't want for Cory to be
disappointed the same way he was, and instead it's more important to
learn responsibility. Like
helping his Dad build the fence, another constant bone of contention
with them both.
Bono is perceptive enough to see that Rose wanted Troy to build
the fence as a symbolic way of assuring that he would stay home, and
be a dedicated husband. Bono
warns Troy about endangering his own sense of well-being, but Troy
argues that at his lover's house he feels he is a free man, and can do
whatever he wants, and that feeling is worth the risk.
We all know that there isn't a good path to success here for
any of these characters. But
we feel their angst, at the same time we are impressed by the nobility
inherent in each: they are
all trying to make their way being guided by their own lights, but
somehow it's never easy.
Yes, since this was first a play, and the playwright (August
Wilson) is the screenwriter, it looks a bit staged on the big screen.
And yet, the characters are unforgettable, even if they're not
exactly charming. Denzel
Washington's performance in the lead role is a veritable tour de
force, and Viola Davis might well attract some Oscar attention for her
strong supporting role.