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African American-Themed ‘Fences’ Could Change ‘Oscars So White’

  • Penelope Poulou

Denzel Washington returns to the director’s chair for the movie Fences, a character drama adapted from August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning theater play. Two-time Oscar winner Denzel Washington also takes on the main character of the story, Troy, an African-American blue collar worker who struggles to survive in a 1950s racially segregated society.

Charm oozes off Troy, a trash collector from Pittsburgh. He cajoles his wife and banters with his friend Bono in his backyard. He talks a mile a minute with poetic thunder about life and lost chances; because Troy knows what it is to lose. A promising baseball player, he never made the big leagues.

Instead, he scrapes by. What he lacks in the world he makes up at home, where he rules as the lord of the manor, always reminding his family who’s boss. His relationship with his youngest son, Cory, is contentious to say the least. Troy refuses to sign for Cory's recruitment by a college football team, despite the fact that he himself dreamed of becoming a star athlete. Bitter and prickly Troy believes there is no future for Cory in sports, and singlehandedly destroys Cory's prospects. Cory resents his father.

Denzel Washington’s fine performance has made him a prime contender for an Oscar nomination. His portrayal of Troy reveals the damage the racial divide inflicted on the African-American man in mid-century America.

Russell Hornsby, who plays Troy’s older son Lyons, a struggling musician vying for his father’s respect, told VOA, that like the play, the film looks at the relationship between father and son within a fractured African American family.

“He’s looking for love and he’s looking for family; he’s looking to be accepted and he’s looking to be embraced by his father," he says. "And so many men of color, black men historically, live life without and so, therefore, they are fractured sometimes, therefore they are broken and their backs are bent. And so, I think through August (Wilson), through his storytelling, what he aims to do is to make men whole."

In an interview with VOA, Denzel Washington said the film and characters transcend race. “The themes of this film, this play, are universal themes. They stand beyond black and white; they reach to the husband and wife, and father and son, mother and son.”

He said the same applies to Troy’s inner character. It is not defined by his skin color, but goes right to the core of his psyche as a human being.

“August Wilson has fashioned a masterpiece that’s one of the great plays in American History. And it’s an honor to be asked to act in it, it’s an honor to produce it and direct it and to be a part of it,” said Washington.

Viola Davis delivers an Oscar worthy performance as Rose, Troy’s wife, and his rock of stability. She is aware of her husband's weaknesses and offsets his fiery personality with quiet resolve and grace.

Fences has the potential for multiple Oscar awards, especially after years of criticism that the Academy has ignored people of color. But Hornsby and the rest of the cast told VOA the awards aren't on the actors' minds.

“I don't think that any of us here are really thinking about that at all. We’ve already won, quite honestly. We are victorious just by sitting before you and just by having the film completed and in the can so that people can see and bear witness to the genius that is August Wilson.”

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