1950s Racial Turmoil in Pittsburgh Sizzles in "Fences"

Culture Watch
tags: movie review, Fences

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at bchadwick@njcu.edu.

Two years ago, I saw August Wilson’s scorching play Fences, about life in black Pittsburgh in the 1950s and '60s. I wondered, like everybody else who has seen the play, how this small, narrow focused story would look like as a movie, with all of the hundreds of scenes that a movie brings. There would be shots of downtown Pittsburgh, baseball games, garbage truck pick-ups, night clubs, football practices, Marine Corps barracks and homes for the mentally ill.

The sweeping power of Fences, acclaimed by so many critics and headed for a barrel full of Oscar nominations for sure tomorrow (actress Viola Davis has already won a Golden Globe as Best Actress) is that the story has stayed small and simple. It looks just like the play and its punch is not in its narrow cinematography, but in its brilliant, achingly beautiful acting and Wilson’s gorgeous dialogue.

On screen, the film, directed by Washington, seems a deeper and more complex look at ex-Negro League baseball player Troy Maxson and his family – wife Viola (Davis), brother Gabe (badly mentally incapacitated by a shell in World War II), played well by Mykelti Williamson, struggling musician son Lyons, 34 (Russell Hornsby), and high school football star Corey (Jovan Adepo), plus old buddy Jim Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson).

The story is that of an African American community and the tale of Troy, a supremely gifted baseball player who was born too early. He was in his 40s when baseball was integrated in 1947 and he never played in the majors. The Negro Leagues died and so did Troy’s dream. He wound up as a sanitation man. He always resented that the world overlooked him, but it overlooked hundreds of black ballplayers born too soon. People get overlooked today for various reasons. Life goes on, but not for Troy. He is remarkably bitter, so angry that he makes a terrible decision involving his brother and son to make himself look better. Troy, 53 when the play starts, is a non-stop talker and bonafide charmer. He takes control of every conversation and everybody’s destiny. Troy, who spent fifteen years in prison, degrades his musician son, always making fun of him and trying to mold him in his own image. He just about ignores his wife Rose, who has stuck by him all these years, hoping, as all women do, to change him into the man she dreamed about but never got. He ruins the chances of his superstar son to play college football.

Fences is a story of family and a story of history. Pittsburgh is a segregated town in the '50s and '60s and even former stars like Troy don’t do much better than work at low paying jobs because they are black. He truly believes that, even though Pittsburgh and America change in the early 1960s and blacks get better jobs and chances to go to college, even if it is through athletic scholarships. Troy can’t accept that because he wants to maintain his position as a sports martyr but remains an old fossil, lost in time, memory and a baseball uniform. He fights hard against everybody and everything, browbeating them all, convinced his old athletic skills will enable him to win, but he loses. He loses all the time. In the end, he makes a terrible decision concerning women that he thinks will bring back his days of glory but nearly ruins his family.

The history of 1950s racism in the story is not overt but it is powerful. The neighborhood where Troy and the Maxsons live is all black, but nobody says that. He and his friends work low paying jobs because they are black, but nobody says that.

The acting in Fences is just scalding. You are snared by Washington as the film opens behind Maxson’s house and he is marching about the yard, telling huge whoppers of stories, enchanting all – but only at first. Right away, you see that he is a huge personality and wonder how, with that bold persona, he has gone absolutely nowhere. That’s because after his charm offensive he bullies everybody. He demeans his wife and argues constantly with his sons. What is it that bothers him so?

His wife Rose sticks with him to the bitter end, even though he has disgraced her with his flings with other women and sneered at her as he has sneered at everybody. She stays, she says, because women should stay with their husbands, no matter what. Rose got plenty of "no matter what." And in her story, spat out bitterly, there is the story of black women in America in that era. Some were married to womanizers or men who just up and left them to raise the kids. They hung on to the men they had for dear life so as not to wind up like so many others, as Rose says. Through her, and the way Davis plays her, you see all of the emotional hurt of a woman in a marriage, black or white, and what they sometimes have to endure and the moment when they have to decide to stay or leave.

There is a lot of history left out of Fences. President Eisenhower ordered federal troops to Little Rock, Arkansas, that year to help integrate the public schools there. A Civil Rights Act was passed that created a Civil Rights Commission. There was a black boycott of buses in Alabama. Several black churches in the South were bombed. A prayer vigil attracted 30,000 to Washington, D.C. The Soviets launched the satellite Sputnik, kicking off the space race. The Maxsons would have been discussing some or all of these events and there should have been some mention of them, even if minor.

Washington and Davis are superb in their roles and they carry the play, but they get plenty of assistance from the others in the story. Director Washington has made his character a man forever lost in baseball and its lore and a man who just cannot understand how to be a good husband and a good dad. It isn’t easy for him, and it isn’t easy for anybody else, but most try harder than he did.

Fences, an Oscar favorite in several categories tomorrow, is a deep and rich look at life and race in Pittsburgh, and America, in the '50s, a home run of a play about a guy who continually struck out once the game on the field was over.

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