I sat watching FENCES twice. Mesmerized. Enchanted. Loving everything about it. Including the many times Troy Maxson says “nigger,” all the inflections, the many times he shows how crafty, beaten down, and crazily standing up, he is. Denzel Washington’s acting (to say nothing of his directing) demonstrates the faith of love: that we can bear to witness where we’ve stood, fallen, cried and lied. Just as August Wilson’s play carries us through those same scary places of our collective psyche as we carve out places to stand, places to breathe clean air. We are in the presence of Art. And artists. How safe one feels, however bumpy the ride.
And Viola Davis. Perfection in this role of the woman we all know and adore who, if we were only bigger, we thought as children, we could make so happy! And the jazz man, with every nuance true, including the hat and the look of sleeping on couches and eating too much grease. And young Cory, beautiful, brilliant, breaking the hearts of all adults who remember a moment growing up when a parent forgot to liberate himself or herself from Mister Charlie’s or Miss Anne’s plantation behavior, passed down, unfortunately, along with the “good hair” and cafe au lait complexion of the generations separating us from them. And Bono: the white nigger, beloved as a miracle we hold on to, because he shows that in a hell where color deforms vision, we are not yet blind.
My favorite character is Gabe. To me, he represents a truth about black people – at least before crack – that comforts: stripped of everything, including many of our faculties, sweetness might remain. And might be, in essence, us. Which is why we welcome the “Gabes”of our lives, as Gabe Maxson is welcomed and loved by almost everyone. Blowing his nearly soundless horn. Waving his fingers as flags. Without a single doubt that he’s in synch with the Universe.
What do we have, if not each other? Not much. This film, like the play,is a bitter, sometimes harsh reminder, of what is at stake if we can not outmaneuver both the slave, and the slave master, inside ourselves, whose dictates, based on generations of pain, can brutally disrupt, misdirect, or even destroy our hard earned lives.