Wednesday, January 11, 2017
Fences: A Generational Breakdown
The first time I heard of Fences was my exposure to the works of playwright August Wilson who poignantly depicted snapshots of black family life in 20th Century America. The first time I saw the play was through a local theater company where my physical brother played the role of Gabe [Gabriel]; the mentally challenged character that was brilliantly played by Mykelti Williamson in the film. Wilson once noted in the Paris Review that, "I think my plays offer (white Americans) a different way to look at black Americans" and this is precisely what Denzel Washington set out to do and accomplished by bringing Fences to the big screen as its Leading Actor/Director alongside the incomparable Viola Davis.
What some do not know about Fences is it's a part of Wilson's Pittsburgh Cycle [Century Cycle] which consists of nine additional plays, ten in total. The backdrop of most of these plays is where Wilson grew up; Pittsburgh's Hill District, with the exception of one set in Chicago, and each play focuses on a different decade. For example:
1900's -Gem of the Ocean
1910's -Joe Turner's Come and Gone
1920's -Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
1930's -The Piano Lesson
1940's -Seven Guitars
1960's -Two Trains Running
1980's -King Hedley II
1990's -Radio Gulf
Something else to consider is even though Wilson's plays depict snapshots of black family life for ten decades, Generations are superimposed over these decades. For example:
1910's-1920's The G.I. [Greatest Generation]
1920's-1940's The Silent Generation
1940's-1960's The Baby Boomer Generation
1960's-1980 Generation X
1980's-1995 Generation Y [Millennials]
As you can see, the backdrop of Fences is the 1950's during the middle of the Baby Boomer Generation. During a scene when Troy was talking about his childhood and becoming a man at 14 years old he said he walked 200 miles to Birmingham Alabama when he left home. When his son Lyons asked him why didn't he get a ride Troy responded that there were no cars at that time because it was 1918. That would mark Troy's birth in 1914, the year of the stock market crash. Although the Baby Boomer Generation is the socioeconomic backdrop of Fences, its main characters Troy and Rose were born in the G.I. Generation. This is very important to understand because it puts Fences, and Wilson's other plays, within the proper cultural, socioeconomic and generational context. Some of the reviews and opinions I've seen and heard about this film failed to take this into consideration. They were often cosmetic at best and empty of a real substantive analysis of what black family life was actually like for some of us from that generation, during that decade, particularly in the North.
I've heard everything from how weak and stupid Rose was, how rotten and chauvinistic Troy was to how Gabe stole the show being batsh*t crazy. Some of us simply ignored the fact that all of these characters in that community, in that decade and from that generation had limited options/opportunities to change their circumstances. Sure there were women such as Rose from that G.I. Generation who found themselves in a similar scenario and did something about it. It definitely wasn't easy but the easiest route out of a life like hers in the 1950's was the underworld and all of its accoutrements. Other than the underworld or a domestic worker, Rose could have been an Entertainer/Athlete like Billie Holiday, Big Momma Thornton, Odetta, Josephine Baker, Althea Gibson or Louise "Queen of the Kitchen" Beavers if she had the talent -yet it would have been long shot at her age. Sure there was welfare instead of asking Troy for money but welfare was shaky in the 1950's when Welfare Reform began. Some things were simply not an option, especially at Rose's age. Many of the modern women I've seen criticizing Rose about her decision to stay in a relationship with Troy after he had a baby on her are accepting stuff from modern day f*ckboys that would make Troy look like Philip Banks from a Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Troy's flophouse options were no different if he wanted to walk out on Rose, at that age. Standing in the same place for eighteen years means that Troy and Rose developed very little skills or professional development training to adapt and progress in a changing world. Many of us have likewise been standing in the same place for years too.
Another thing that's important to understand is that their son Cory, who disapproved of his Father's behavior and Mother's acceptance, is a Baby Boomer. Many of the changes that Baby Boomers brought about within their generation [the 1960's], as with every generation, is oftentimes based upon dissatisfaction/disapproval. Some women during that decade who would have been Cory's Baby Boomer peers made decisions that echoed the same dissatisfaction/disapproval of a Troy and Rose family dynamic. Some women decided the institution of marriage was a prison sentence and vowed never to exchange vows. The Daughters of Bilitis (DOB) was born, America's first formal lesbian organization. Abortion was illegal and birth control pills were approved by the FDA. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was started, bras were burned and the Women's Rights and Feminist Movements were the direct response to a G.I. and Silent Generation. None of these changes we see in the American landscape, in each generation, happen in a vacuum. In many instances these changes are also the result of Socioeconomic Engineering.
Fences starring James Earl Jones, Broadway 1987
As I've mentioned, Fences is a snapshot of black family life for some of us in that generation, during that decade, in the North. As black people we are not one monolithic group and there are various perspectives that represent who and what we are as a people. Even though there are many common themes of institutional racism, white nationalism and sexism we as black people had to deal with and still have to deal with in America, our entire world in the 1950's did not look like Pittsburgh's Hill District. Just like when we see footage of Dr. Martin Luther King's historic March on Washington, all black people in America weren't there or actually cared about participating in it. On August 28th, 1963 some black folks were sitting at home in a middle class neighborhood saying, "That nigga crazy causing trouble. We got it good right now, why he trying to mess stuff up?!" Although we are not monolithic, it's also important to understand that within this society we are a racially defined as a monolith; one minority group that's intractably indivisible and uniform in our sense of powerlessness. This is very problematic when the dominant society has primary control of our individual and collective narrative. A society where uniform caricatures, outright lies and other disinformation is institutionalized and broadcast to its citizenry to paint us as ignorant, inferior, ugly and impotent. Therein also exists our power of identity, when the highest value lies in our relationships and sense of self determination. Solid relationships where cultural continuity, collective work and responsibility and cooperative economics was and is the order of the day. An excellent example of this was Black Wall Street, a society forged by the Lost and Interbullum Generations of blacks who came of age during World War I and II.
It was hard to find black people in America today from the G.I. Generation who didn't have any bitterness, disappointment or depression in them like Troy and Rose. Many black families moved to the North during the twenties and were stung with the stark reality that there was a lack of opportunities for blacks who were still segregated from American society. The pride on Troy's face and how his family and friends celebrated his promotion to be the first black man in Pittsburgh to drive a garbage truck gives you a sense of those lack of opportunities. Another name for the G.I. Generation is "The Greatest Generation"; those who came of age during the Great Depression, Prohibition and were veterans of World War II. To give you a sense of what the backdrop of this generation looked like, this was a time in America when girls wore dresses and boys wore suits and ties every day. People generally sought the American Dream, were loyal to its institutions and the KKK had a card carrying membership of approximately 3 million members. Seven Presidents, from the 35th to the 41st, were born in this generation as well as Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson and Jack Johnson became the first black heavyweight champion during the height of this Jim Crow Era. The G.I. Generation was a tumultuous time when race riots were common place throughout American cities and leaders such as Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois and Marcus Garvey came along to give black people a sense of direction. This was also a significant time politically; black people who traditionally voted Republican switched in mass to the Democratic Party. At the same time, and in contrast to blacks in this country, white America began its Roaring Twenties; an exuberant, boisterous time of prosperity and freewheeling popular culture.
Fences was more than a poignant cinematic adaptation of an August Wilson play or a critical illustration of how dysfunctional black folks were. Fences is a bold reminder of Sankofa, expressed in the Akan language as "se wo were fi na wosan kofa a yenki" meaning "it is not taboo to go back and fetch what you [we] forgot." Many of us have forgotten these stories of our elder generation and are thus ill equipped to deal with similar circumstances and race-based challenges our families and communities still deal with today. Fences is a textbook social study of some of our G.I., Silent and Baby Boomer Generations during a decade when blacks continued to face white domestic terrorism on all fronts, be it political, economic, social, emotional and of course physical. The murder of Emmett Till, the fortitude of Rosa Parks and the protests of many others during this time were a part of the catalyst to spark our Civil/Human Rights Movement. Each of the characters in this film told a complex story of identity, autonomy and the struggle for upward mobility in a society fashioned to keep black people powerless. Our resolve wasn't always the best. Yet if we look, listen, learn and respect this narrative, we can better position ourselves to not only change it but gather the power to control it.