Before the Black Lives Matter craze exacerbated contemporary attitudes about race and black social continuity, playwright August Wilson’s Fences articulated a black tribal viewpoint of the ambition, grievance, and assorted religious, sexual, and political beliefs borne by African American experience. The play focused on Troy Maxon, a sanitation worker in 1950s Pittsburgh, who regaled his wife, their two sons, his brother, and a best friend of his personal feelings and beliefs, constantly recalling the things he’s gone through as a black American male. (He’s affectionately described as “Uncle Remus. Got more stories than the devil got sinners.”) Maxon’s tough, defensive attitude stemmed largely from his failed athletic career — an abiding frustration explained by the stifling segregation of the Jim Crow era. Maxon is Wilson’s archetypal character, a beyond-eloquent mouthpiece for the bitterness Wilson felt about the existential inequities suffered because of American racism.
Although Fences derives from the black oral tradition, its ideas were by no means obscure or marginalized, but in fact are so familiar to American theatrical practice that the play received two celebrated Broadway productions, the first in 1987 starring James Earl Jones, the second in 2010 starring Denzel Washington. Now Washington directs the film version of Fences (he repeats the role of Maxon) as an established classic of American theatrical literature rather than another Obama Effect film reflecting the opportunistic recent events (denoted by Ferguson and Black Lives Matter) that set a new paradigm for thinking about race.
By these terms, Fences is a conservative movie — which is unfortunate artistically and interesting politically. It feels dialogue-heavy because Washington doesn’t command the cinematic rhythm of movement and imagery that makes the best film adaptations of plays (David Lean’s Blithe Spirit, Sidney Lumet’s Long Day’s Journey into Night) seem perfect, absolutely natural, visual records of behavior. But it is that dialogue — Wilson’s deliberate, elaborately staged poetry, Maxon’s machine-gun rattling of self-shaped philosophies — that gives the play its conservatism.
Although Wilson’s writing was contemporary (he died in 2005), his ten-play output — a cycle set during every decade of the 20th century — chronicled black American history. Each drama used the background of gradual social progress, yet every story was rooted in earthly frustration, high and low spiritual aspiration (best evinced by Seven Guitars, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and Joe Turner’s Come and Gone), and political reality. In portraying the latter, Wilson commemorated how black folks recognized the evidence of ineradicable racism and still got on with their lives. His richest characters, like Maxon, believe in the principles of hard work, self-reliance, personal obligation, and ethical achievement.
These specific, sometimes lyrical African American truths contradict the inexact, sentimental grievance thrown up by Black Lives Matter. Wilson’s conservative narratives, with their heartfelt emphasis on personal relations, demonstrate the difference between entitlement as earned historically by human effort and the empty radical postures assumed by facile cultural inheritance. That’s the source of the conflict between Maxon and his older son, Lyons, an itinerant musician, and his younger son, Cory, a pouting, willful schoolboy.
Fences’ rebuttal to a pseudo-political social movement occurs inadvertently, as a benefit of Wilson’s concern with experience-based black values rather than political fashion. The difference is both temperamental and generational, but it is ironic that Wilson came to prominence during the rise of hip-hop culture; as if he felt the same inspiration as the post–Civil Rights, crack-era generation of America’s damaged black youth who were beginning to articulate and romanticize their own experiences. Fact is, the ingrained traditions of comprehending and surviving racism can be expressed in different idioms. Wilson has said that his writing was inspired by black poet Ishmael Reed, whose own vernacular (part of the 1960s Black Arts Movement) is as different from Wilson’s as it is from Public Enemy and Geto Boys, yet they all work the same territory. They recognize the black ethical history that Black Lives Matter (if not all contemporary liberalism) has abandoned.