Fences and Whether Love’s Needed to Be a Good Parent

Fences.jpgIf your daddy’s a good one, let him know. Denzel’s character Troy Maxson in Fences is a father and husband who is more dedicated to the tasks that come along with the job than affection.

He gives his eldest son (from a previous marriage) Lyons $10, but only after giving him a hard time for needing the loan as an adult in the first place.

To him, being a father doesn’t come with a promise to love your child, but a contract confirming that you’ll tend to it—provide a roof over its head, feed it and coach him up to be fit for a solid job after it graduates from high school. If there is any love there, it’s the toughest the feeling has to offer. His relationship with his youngest, Cory, is contentious, to say the least. Troy denies him the chance to play college football and earn a scholarship for fear that no white-owned company will hire him after they use him up (it’s a period piece, set in 1950s Pittsburgh). Instead, Troy believes he’s pointing Cory the right direction: a job adjacent to the steady gig he has as a garbageman.

To Troy, being a husband to his dedicated wife Rose means that he’ll hand over his paycheck to her at the end of the week, provide “a sack of potatoes and a bucket of lard,” and comes home to her every night. Although he may stop at another woman’s house every now and then before getting back to his.

The scene that perhaps earned Viola Davis a Golden Globe Award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role is when Davis’ Rose humbles Troy—high on himself for the supposed sacrifices he’s made to be a family man and “standing in the same place for 18 years”—by saying he’s not the only one who has fantasized about being with other lovers and another life.”What about me?” she yells.

Troy himself is the product of poor fathering. In one Fences scene, we learn that Troy’s dad was a hard-ass who bossed him around and forced him to work as soon as he could walk. There was no love, just harsh grooming. Troy, once a talented baseball player before the sport was integrated, didn’t get to play in the big league. He lives with the frustration of being too old to compete with the likes of Jackie Robinson and with the angst of racism not allowing him (or his son) to achieve their true dreams. When your actions are guided by fear, regret, and misplaced frustration like Troy’s are, those around you suffer.

And that leads me to think about my dad, who’s been nothing but supportive and loving throughout my life. When I decided I wanted to be a journalist, he never questioned me. When I decided I wanted to move to New York City to begin my career, he didn’t try to keep me tied up in Maryland or redirect me towards a more lucrative profession. In fact, he helped me find an apartment and gave me seed money. Throughout my life, he has both put his wingtips in my ass and held my hand. Denzel’s Troy only does the meaner half of that.

I’m not quite sure if love is required to be a good parent, but it sure will be a heavily used tool as I build my future children up. Fences functions as a cautionary tale of sorts: Unclinch your fists and open your arms up to your sons and daughters. Life will beat them up and weather them down with its stresses. When it does, be there with a hug.

Shout out to dads who allow their children to dream of a life greater than theirs. Thank you to dads who love big.

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