I realised that Denzel Washington was playing my father
'I am reminded how much his character angered me. How much he disappointed me. How much he taught me. Then I realise that Troy was my father, who died almost a dozen years ago'
OF ALL the post-Oscars analyses this will be the most deviant: it comes from a man who watched only one of the films nominated in the 24 categories, but who felt hard done by when its protagonist didn't win for best actor.
The film is Fences — adapted for screen from August Wilson's Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name.
Troy Maxson, played by director Denzel Washington, is our tragic hero and he has stayed with me since watching the film. Like a stubborn pimple one tries to ignore while passing the mirror, Troy has popped into my head every time I come across Washington's face on websites and social media.
I am reminded how much his character angered me. How much he disappointed me. How much he taught me. Then I realise that Troy was my father, who died almost a dozen years ago.
Fences is about an ordinary family leading an ordinary life. It is set in the 1950s in Pittsburgh, US, and follows a former Negro-league baseball player, a proud husband and father and the Maxson family's breadwinner. His stunted progress in life leaves him bitter and depressed. As a result, his relationship with his family, especially his sons Lyons and Cory, is stunted.
The biggest disparity between the relationship of Troy, Cory and Lyons and that of my father and I was that there were never too many words exchanged between us. My father needed only to give you a look for you to know you'd made a misstep. He wanted to lead from the front. The assumed duties of fatherhood and being a husband and a big brother to his siblings, while also leading a career in teaching, meant shouldering a burden of being expected to be constantly exemplary.
In Fences, after Troy denies Cory permission to sign up for a football team, his son finally asks him why he “ain't never liked me?”.
Thus begins a heartbreaking monologue. Troy tells his son he doesn't have to like him, that he puts clothes on his back and food on the table and a roof over his head because it‘s his “job”.
“It‘s my responsibility! You understand that? A man got to take care of his family. You live in my house ... sleep your behind on my bedclothes ... fill your belly up with my food ... cause you my son. You my flesh and blood. Not because I like you. Cause it's my duty to take care of you. I owe a responsibility to you ... don't you try and go through life worrying about if somebody like you or not. You best be making sure they doing right by you.”
He doesn't admit that he envies his son because, unlike himself, Cory's dreams remain attainable and he hasn't any responsibilities hanging around his neck.
My father was an intelligent and ambitious man but, similarly to Troy, he pushed me out of a desire to see me do better than him — even if it was at the expense of my own dreams. He wanted to know that he had done his bit. There was a resentment which grew and hung over us until his last days.
I was so incensed by Troy because he espoused that style of parenthood, of instilling fear and expecting appreciation and indebtedness in return. It's a trend that has not died and is thwarting many paternal relationships in black families I have witnessed. There were days aplenty when I could have been Cory and asked my father why he so scarcely exhibited affection.
My next assignment, however, is to make my mother sit through all 133 minutes of Fences so she can applaud herself for the patience she showed while propping up her husband; just like Rose (played by Viola Davis, who on Sunday night won the best supporting actress Oscar for her portrayal), she was selfless in their marriage.
To quote Rose, despite my mother's own dreams and desires, she instead “took all my feelings, my wants and needs, my dreams ... and I buried them inside you. I planted a seed and watched and prayed over it. I planted myself inside you and waited to bloom.”
It is not a crime to love and to be so committed, but it would be a crime to ignore stories such as Fences, which reflect diverse narratives and backgrounds — they‘re not only a mirror of society, but great therapy.
Fences understood my outstanding questions and nodded and put its arms around me and reminded me that life is long and difficult and that holding grudges only holds us hostage. Time is the greatest healer, hindsight is the greatest teacher — and Fences (through Washington and Davis) was a timely reminder of that.