Denzel Washington and Viola Davis embody their characters exquisitely in the play-turned movie, “Fences.” Set in Pittsburgh in the 1950’s Washington plays Troy Maxson, a lifelong garbage man. Davis is his long-suffering wife, Rose. Together with their son, Cory (Jovan Adepo), they constitute an endearing but dysfunctional family.
Other characters move in and out of this small but moving family portrait. There’s Bono (Stephen Henderson), Troy’s friend and co-worker. Every Friday, after receiving their weekly pay, they buy a bottle of gin and pass it around in Troy’s little square of a backyard while philosophizing about life. Then there’s Lyons (Russell Hornsby), Troy’s older son from a previous relationship. Lyons is a struggling musician who stops by on payday to borrow money from his Pop. And Gabe. Gabe (Mykelti Williamson) is Troy’s brain-damaged brother due to a metal plate in his head, the result of a World War II head injury. Troy’s interaction with each person reveals his goodness but also his flaws.
Troy carries a deep-seeded guilt over using his brother’s disability money to buy their modest home where Gabe has lived until recently. Troy vacillates between being a loving husband, happy in his marriage, to intense introspection, believing that his life amounts to nothing, not even receiving enough wages to house and feed his family if it were not for Gabe’s situation. His bitterness stems from a lost opportunity. He was a star in the Negro baseball leagues but was too old to play professionally when Major League Baseball began accepting African-Americans. Troy vents his frustration by preventing Cory from playing football, giving him a talking to about getting a job that will support him and his future family.
Through Troy’s ups and downs, Rose faithfully maintains the household. She laughs with him as he tells the story of when he first met her and how they fell in love. She scolds Troy when he won’t loan ten dollars to Lyons. She begs him to sign Cory’s football permission form. When Troy goes into a rant about the unfairness of life, she takes him to task for being selfish, explaining that she has been standing right beside him during all those unfair years, giving up her own desires and dreams to be faithful to her husband. Rose embodies what “for better or worse” really means, especially when Troy throws Rose a curveball that almost breaks her.
“Fences” deals with the ins and outs, good times and bad that every married couple faces. Some times are better and some times are worse. In today’s society, the divorce statistics tell us that when the bad times come, many couples simply call it quits, not willing to sacrifice for the sake of the other. Commitment seems to mean less and less. Rose’s faithful sacrifice and forgiveness in the face of Troy’s failings remind us that faithful love does not come from a feeling. It comes from honoring a commitment made out of love, come what may. For Christians, it means honoring the vows, made before God, “till death do us part.”