“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. 

Questions for Discussion:

1)                  Is there such a thing as reverse racism today?  If so, where have you seen it?

2)                  Should a spouse remain loyal even in the aftermath of the partner's infidelity?

3)                  The half-siblings in this scenario have their own emotional and attachment issues.  What is your experience in these situations?


Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association