Here's Why The Racially-Charged Fences Is Still Relevant Today

Photo: Courtesy of Paramount.
Typically after I watch a period film about racial tensions in the 1950s or '60s, I walk away from it thinking about how glad I am that things have changed — grateful that, as a minority, I grew up in an era that affords freedoms and liberties I might not have had access to in the past. Grateful that there is at least one tangible emotion I can cling to, even in the darkest of moments: hope.

So heading in to see the new big screen adaptation of August Wilson's play Fences, I expected to have a similar experience. But while listening to the notoriously bitter character Troy Maxson (portrayed brilliantly by the sure-to-be-a-2017-Oscar winner Denzel Washington, who also directed the film) vent about the racial barriers that prevented him from becoming a professional baseball player and making a better life for himself and his family, I wound up feeling the exact opposite of gratitude about how things have changed.

Instead, I came to a disturbing realization: Things really aren't all that different from the 1950s world of Fences and the current racial climate in 2016.

In many of the story's scenes, Troy commiserates over alcohol with his best friend, Jim (and sometimes, just drunkenly with himself), about his plight and how great things could have been for him if only he had the same opportunities as everyone else. His exasperation over the years creates a home environment thick with resentment and negativity, which begins to eat away at his relationship with his wife, Rose (portrayed by Viola Davis, who brought me to tears several times) and his son Cory (also an incredible performance by up-and-comer Jovan Adepo).

Much of the slow-burn, poetic film centers on the way Troy holds Cory back from a career in football. The father argues that, because Cory is Black, the white man won't let him succeed. Of course, much of Troy's reasoning for not allowing his son to reach (and reach for) his potential isn't totally racially driven; he's also just a selfish man, suspicious that his son might one day outshine him, achieving the things he never could in sports.

But on the surface, at least, the reason beneath his strictness is simple. Troy is afraid that the color of Cory's skin will keep him from realizing his dreams, and that failure will leave him disappointed and heartbroken.

Wilson wrote this play storyline in 1983, based on what life was like back in the 1950s. But it's still a common narrative between Black parents and children today. I've seen it time and time again in my own communities and circles: Parents whose fear and love for their children morphs into an overprotectiveness because they are scared of what their race could mean for their kids — and how it could hurt them.

So instead of pushing their kids to aim high, their instinct is to shelter their children from anything that could potentially beat them down. I've seen friends whose parents, like Troy, didn't push them to become doctors or writers or athletes because they were Black, and therefore they grew up with a massive chip on their shoulder — and an inability to dream caused by the messages of self-preservation that were passed down from their parents.
Photo: Courtesy of Paramount.
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The setting for Troy's commiseration feels eerily familiar, too: Just like in the Maxsons' imaginary backyard in the '50s, many of us in 2016 are gathering in one another's homes to have alcohol-fueled conversations about our fears, our grievances, and how best to protect ourselves and our children.

While much has changed for minorities since the era depicted in Fences — for instance, people of color now make up a majority of most Major League Baseball teams — we're still gathering to discuss and drink away our anxiety, to shake the weight we feel on our backs because there are people around us (including law enforcement and the soon-to-be-president of our nation) who believe we are lesser than; people who may, consciously or not, put obstacles in our way because we are the Other.

Of course, Troy has many demons, and his King Lear-esque downfall cannot be blamed completely on racism. He is incredibly self-centered and narcissistic (and clearly an alcoholic). But like with anyone else, his internal issues can't be cured when he also feels downtrodden about the realities of the world around him — when he has so little control over his destiny because of both class and race.

"I ain’t got no tears...I done spent them," Troy tells his wife Rose in one particularly emotional scene. "We go upstairs in that room at night... and I fall down on you and try to blast a hole into forever." He sounds like a man constantly in search of a way to forget, even for a moment, that he is lost, defeated — hopeless.

It's a sentiment not unlike one of the biggest R&B songs of 2016. In Solange Knowles' "Cranes In The Sky," she sings about trying to forget about the burdens that come with her skin: "I tried to drink it away / I tried to keep myself busy / I ran around in circles / Think I made myself dizzy... Well it's like, cranes in the sky / Sometimes I don't wanna feel those metal clouds." More than six decades apart, people like Troy Maxson, Solange Knowles, and even myself are all still seeking out ways of escaping our hopelessness. Even Michelle Obama feels it: In her interview farewell to the White House with Oprah Winfrey, she shared that she believes her husband, President Barack Obama, achieved his goal of giving the country hope during his presidency. But, she said, "now, we are feeling what not having hope feels like."

like Troy and Rose, I also feel the need to put a protective layer between the people I love most and the world, to create a safe cocoon where we can escape.

I could have chosen to focus on different powerful elements of Fences — the love between Troy and Rose, or the true meaning of motherhood, or just the outstanding (did I mention brilliant?) acting from both Washington and Viola Davis.

But just like as a Black and Latina woman I cannot choose to ignore the complexities of the world around me, while watching this movie I couldn't ignore the similarities between the feeling I had while sitting in the theater and the one I have every single time I see a headline about another slain Black man, or read a story about the "Alt-right," or see America yet again ignore another racist Donald Trump comment.

Fences — both the play itself and the word — denotes the literal barriers that Troy erects around the house for Rose, to both delineate their property and also keep out the evil that lurks around the perimeters. It's also no coincidence that Rose sings a hymn about fences at the beginning of Act Two: "Jesus, be a fence all around me every day," goes the verse.

But while the fence is intended to keep things out, it also, in many ways, ends up as a double-edged sword that keeps the family constrained, overly-protected in a way that doesn't allow them to do better, become bigger, be braver. In the end, we see that perhaps Troy and Rose's fence ends up trapping his family — instead of giving them freedom from the turbulence outside their front door.

I am grateful that people like me, like my family, have had so many opportunities to venture beyond the fences that once penned us in — grateful for my ancestors who worked, willingly or unwillingly, to even get us to this point. But like Troy and Rose, I also feel the need to put a protective layer between the people I love most and the world, to create a safe cocoon where we can escape. And I need a place to protect my own heart, to tuck away the one thing I want to always hold onto. I need a safely fenced-in place where I can still dare to have... hope.
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