Saturday, January 21, 2017


"Fences" is a powerful movie. I recommend it strongly.

Having said that, let me say that I do not know that you will "enjoy" the movie. I am not sure that I "enjoyed" it. I appreciated the excellent acting. I am astounded by the clarity of the writing. I marveled at the direction of Denzel Washington, taking this stage play to the screen and, while never letting you forget you were watching a play, making it a "real movie."

But I did not "enjoy" it. It is too deep, too personal, too close to home.

As in most of my blog movie reviews, I expect there will be spoilers here. It is not my goal to give away the plot, but you can find most of that in other reviews on the internet. This movie is not really about surprises anyway.

"Fences" spoke to me.

It has a lot of characteristics that flavor the tone of the movie, but it is not really "about" any of those things.

The movie is not really about race. It is certainly set in and completely textured by the life of a group of African-Americans in Pittsburgh in the fifties and into the sixties. It features dialog and dialect and issues of importance to African-Americans - and to all of us - then and now. There is much talk of prejudice and equal opportunity and how the white man treats the black man. There are references to Jackie Robinson and a picture of Dr. King. But the movie is not about race so much as it is set in a time and place where race issues permeate the thoughts and conversation.

The movie is not really about family. It is certainly set within a family structure. Husband, wife, brother, children, mother, father, wayward child, achieving child... these types are all here. How we relate to those we love is a repetitive backdrop. But the movie is not about family so much as it uses family as a vehicle.

The movie is not really about religion. The symbol of the cross is omnipresent, whether on a wall or on a necklace or on the Steel City skyline. There is a well-placed picture of Jesus overlooking much of the activity. The church and the Last Judgment and the pearly gates are all up for discussion. But the movie is not about religion so much as it is set against an assumption of the role of religion in each of these characters' life.

The movie is not really about death. One character talks about death - and to Death - with some regularity. The specter of death hangs over the whole movie, and the interspersed discussion of St. Peter, waiting to open the gates for all of us, keeps death front and center. But the movie is not about death so much as it pays homage to the certainty of death for us all.

The movie is also not about baseball, that holiest of symbols. It uses the language of baseball constantly, and I suspect that if you do not speak that language - if the image of a hanging curveball over the inside corner or a full count against a good pitcher or why Hank Aaron is "just doing what he is paid to do" - then some of the most imaginative and meaningful of the dialog of the movie will be lost on you. If you cannot identify with the Negro Leaguer who was too old for the majors by the time of integration, then you will not understand some of the basic motivation of the movie. If a ball hanging on a rope from a limb with a bat leaning against the trunk do not make you long to take a swing, whether out of frustration or pure joy, then you will not get everything in the movie. But the movie is not about baseball so much as it speaks through baseball.

There are other things that permeate the movie that some reviewers will latch onto that are not really what the movie is about - money, music, rebellion, feminism, the need we all have to build. These are all crucial aspects of the movie, but they are not what it is about.

This movie is about a man who is lost. This movie is about a man, Troy, whom we want to like and in fact we do like, at least for a while, who is lost. Life for Troy started unfairly, and he may well have tried his best to overcome his circumstances, but somewhere along the way he began lying to himself, and to his family, and to God. Somewhere along the way - maybe always - he found ways to take and take and take while convincing himself he was giving and giving and giving. Troy takes advantage of his brother and his wife and the government. He is looking for a chance to take advantage of the boss - ostensibly to blaze a trail for others but really just to make his own life easier. He takes advantage of one son who is looking for an excuse ... any excuse ... to have a relationship with his father, and he takes advantage of another son who challenges what Troy might have become.

This movie is about a man who tries to take advantage of death. Troy sacrifices what is good and right. His explanation/excuse for his betrayal is that age and life and experience have, in his mind, taken away his ability to laugh. Like Vincent Gardenia's character Cosmo in the great "Moonstruck," who blames his longtime affair on his fear of dying, Troy is aging, and the Grim Reaper is ever closer, and he searches for a way to take advantage of death. But the way he does it is so outrageous, so hurtful, so completely self-centered that even his best friend has no alternative but to distance himself. What was once a constant companionship deteriorates into an almost-by-chance occasional meeting, colored by nothing but small talk and discomfort.

There will be much talk about the power in many of Rose's lines, and Viola Davis deserves every award she gets. To me, her most poignant line, the line that embodies the theme of this movie, is not one that most of the reviewers are fawning over. To me, her line that "sometimes he bruises when he touches" is the theme of the movie. This man is lost, and he does not think he knows the way home. Or to be clearer, he will not take the way home. He looks for it in gin and in humor and in the bedroom, but he never finds it. He knows the way - it is right in front of him on that ever-present necklace and over the sink and on the wall and in the simple faith of his brother and in the enduring faithfulness of his wife and in the determination of his son. But he will not accept the way home, and he is lost.

And along the way, he bruises those he touches.

He builds too many fences.

You should see this movie.