Fences: Making A Home In The 1950S
The 2016 Film “Fences” is a drama portraying an African-American man, Troy Maxson, working hard to support his family in the 1950s in Pittsburgh, PA. This film has won an overwhelmingly long list of awards from multiple associations including the Oscars, Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild and AAFCA, ranging from best actor and best supporting actress to best screenplay and top 10 films. I chose this movie because I had seen this play in Peru a few years ago and I really enjoyed it. I thought that this great story directed by Denzel Washington had to be amazing, and it was.
Denzel Washington stars in this movie that shows not only the struggles that Troy went through creating a home for the people that he loves, but also how his hard work allowed him to be able to provide for them, despite the limitations that society put on him and his loved ones. Troy comes home every night and brings his whole paycheck to his wife every Friday. He seems to really love his wife Rose, played by Viola Davis, and he tries to be a good father to Cory, his teenage son.
Troy works for a company that picks up trash along with his long-time friend, Bono. He complains that the company uses black people to pick up the trash and only white people as drivers. This is an example of work inequality for African American citizens in this time in history. Thankfully, after respectfully asking for a change, and after many years of working for that company, the Commissioner allows him to move up to driving the trucks instead of just picking up trash. It is important to note that this is not something that came easy to Troy. He had to be one of the brave men to ask for more, because society didn’t just give him extra for no reason. The day that Troy went to talk to his boss after he asked to be a driver, everybody thought that he was going to get fired. Instead, he was pleasantly surprised when he got a promotion and a raise, and he was allowed to drive the trucks.
When Troy comes back home after receiving the news of his promotion, he is very loud and is very excited to tell Rose about it. He breaks into song and after singing a nice loud tune, he says that his dad wrote that song. This reminds me of a quote from this class, “Slaves in fact, continued to utilize song in much the way their African ancestors had. Music remained a central, living element in their daily expression and activities.” (Levine) Levine says that the Black slaves had ancestors in Africa that used music as a main part of their expression, and those are the same ancestors as Troy’s. We can tell in this scene that Troy is inundated with emotion and it can only overflow from him in the form of music. It is a very touching scene full of excitement and emotion, and I was reminded of all the excitement and dance and happy music that was shared by the Cubans with their Africans “cousins” when they went to visit them in the documentary “They are we”. Deep connections took place even with the language difference, because the music within them brought them together.
The opportunities for African Americans had increased during Troy’s lifetime. Troy was an excellent baseball player, but he is under the impression that he was not allowed to play ball with the pros because he was black. His wife told him that she thought he couldn’t play because he was too old to play and that the world is changing, and he is not willing to see it. Troy did not allow his boy to play football because he insisted that the white man is never going to let a black kid in their team. I can see in Troy a man that has suffered a lot of discrimination growing up and might not be willing to accept that society is becoming more accepting of African Americans, as he got older. I also think that education is a key factor in uniting Black and White people. And seeing as Troy was not traditionally educated, it was probably harder for him to imagine a world that was not as hard for Black people as his own life had been. In the 1950s things were starting to get ramped up for the Civil Rights movement with Rosa Parks refusing to sit in the back of the bus in 1955, so real change was not evident yet.
Another factor that I think is tremendously important is that Troy refused to buy a TV because he was a responsible man with limited resources and he had decided that his roof, that was coming due for a replacement, was a better investment of his $200 that a new TV. A television set would have been important in showing him what was going on in different states as far as protests and other events important to Civil Rights Movement. Television and the Civil Rights Movement went hand in hand showing the world what was going on in America. (Paley)
This is some background information I was able to find on racism in Pennsylvania,
Summer and swimming go hand in hand–or so thought the Creative Steps Day Care Camp. The camp’s leaders had signed a contract to use the pool at a private swim club, but when the children–46 African Americans and ten Hispanics ranging from kindergarten through seventh grade–arrived for their summer swim, they were subjected to harsh criticism by some club members. The swim club then cancelled the contract, even though the entire fee of $1,950 had been paid in full. The incident did not occur in the South, but it took place at the Valley Swim Club in Huntingdon Valley, Montgomery County, an affluent Philadelphia suburb, not in 1809 or 1949, but in 2009. Three months later, in September, the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission found probable cause that the group’s ouster was motivated by racism. The event bears witness that the struggle by African Americans for civil and political rights continues in the twenty-first century. (Patrick)
If this was the situation in Pennsylvania in 2009, we can definitely make the safe assumption on the social climate in 1957, at the first part of the Civil Rights Movement. Even though life in Pittsburgh was better and as it is said in the movie, “Times have changed after the war,” I didn’t miss the fact that Troy is a grown man who cannot read. If a 53-year old man has to choose between learning to read and working to provide for his family, then there is a big problem.
During the 20th century, the population of African Americans in the state of Pennsylvania got bigger, because of people migrating from the South, especially to Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, where it seemed that the opportunities to advance economically were abundant. What they didn’t know is that the spirit of Jim Crow was still going strong in the North. For instance, speaking of the racist organization Ku Klux Klan, “The numbers are astonishing. At its brief height in the mid-1920s, the Klan had perhaps 250,000 members in Pennsylvania, perhaps a quarter of whom lived in the counties surrounding Pittsburgh” (Jenkins) According to accounts from people living in Pennsylvania, African Americans in these towns were not easily intimidated. (Patrick)
During the movie, Troy tells the story of when he met the Devil. He said that even though he had a job, the stores would not give him credit to buy furniture for his house. His son was sleeping on the ground and he didn’t know what to do. One day out of nowhere a man knocks on his door and tells him, “I know that you are having trouble getting credit for your furniture. I am willing to give you credit if you’d pay us interest.” Troy said that if he got him all the furniture he needed, he would pay him any interest. A few days later, a truck came with the furniture and the man gave him a payment book and told him that he had to send $10 at the beginning of every month to an address and that as long as he did, he would be ok. But if he stopped, all hell would break lose. Troy says, “now if that was not the Devil, I don’t know who the Devil is” He said he had been sending $10 a month for 15 years because he is afraid to stop paying. This was all a made-up joke, but it was mesmerizing. His originality and spontaneity were amazing. This connects with the artistic ability and creativity we talked about in class, from hip hop to creating a style that identifies Black people as being original and cool. You want to listen to Troy, you want to be around him and have a drink with him. Levine talks about Black people and humor, making up jokes to make fun of white people. In Troy’s story, the Devil was a White man, and it was really funny and absurd that he would pay $10 a month for 15 years for fear to see that man again.
The characters in this movie use laughter in the face of adversity in a few occasions. Bono and Troy laugh about the adversity of not being able to drive the trash truck, and they all laugh about Troy not being offered credit for the furniture. Levine talked about the importance of laughter, “Laughter was a compensating mechanism which enabled blacks to confront oppression and hardship: It is our emotional salvation.” (Levine) They laugh about harsh situation so they could survive them and keep living their lives despite the injustices.
Troy has altercations with his son Cory because he would not allow him to play football even after finding out that recruiters were coming to watch him play. I found his restraint admirable. When those two got into it and the boy was borderline disrespectful, Troy held it together and did not touch his son. They were both so mad that I thought he was going to hit him, but he loved his son and he really thought he was advising him to do what was best for him. Cory loses it a couple of times, but his dad easily brings him back to the place of “Yes, Sir” and they are able to continue to live around each other. This good parent-son interaction reminded me of the movie Birth of a Nation, when Nate’s dad needs to run away even though he loved his family. He grabs his son and tells him to take care of his mother and the boy looks up at him with admiration and respect, and also sadness that he was living. Troy and Cory end up growing apart from each other and unfortunately never reconcile. Cory goes off to join the Marines and doesn’t come back until Troy’s funeral years later.
Troy had an affair and got a lady pregnant. His wife was very sad and angry and never recovers from this betrayal, but they all still live at the same house. This other woman dies giving birth and Troy brings the baby home. Rose agrees to raise the baby as hers, but refuses to reconcile with Troy. He keeps working and bring his paycheck home and as time goes by, Rose seems more independent and freer to go to her church functions as she pleased. She no longer asks permission from Troy to go out and socialize. This family seems to be catholic because they have crosses and a big picture of the Last Supper as decoration. Churches were a safe place for Black people and they marked an important part of African American expression. “In both theater and the church, gospel singers reached out to their listeners in a dialogue that embraced familiar topics of concern and reminded everyone present of their roots.” (Levine) So Rose was happy and energized when she had to go out to participate in a church function.
Troy dies years later. His baby raised by Rose was named Raynell and she is about 7 at the end of the movie. Cory comes home after a few years and meets his little sister again. They start singing one of their dad’s songs and instantly connect singing together, just like the Cubans and their people from Upper Banta.
“Fences” made a statement in that it showed the life struggles of a working Black man in America in the 1950s. He made mistakes because nobody is perfect, but he recovered and made the best he could from his decisions. He worked hard and was able to support a home with three children, without even knowing how to read. Even though his marriage was not ideal after his affair, he stayed at his home and kept doing what he considered his responsibility above all, taking care of his family.
Fences. Dir. Denzel Washington. Perf. Viola Davis, Stephen McKinley Henderson Denzel Washington. 2016. Amazon Prime Video.
Jenkins, Philip. Pennsylvania’s dark history of hate. 29 10 2018. Online. 14 03 2019. .
Levine, Lawrence. Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom. Oxford University Press, 2007.
Paley. The Civil Rights Movement and Television. n.d. Online. 14 03 2019. .
Patrick, Leslie. Pennsylvania Heritage. 01 Spring 2010. Online. 14 03 2019. .
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