Fences by August Wilson premiered in 1985. The play was adapted into a movie in 2016, with Denzel Washington and Viola Davis reprising their roles, of Troy and Rose respectively, from the 2010 revival of the play on Broadway. The movie adaptation highlights the way Troy is a tragic figure, rather than a merely a sympathetic one. Based on the written play, Troy is a character who has faced a difficult life and perpetuates this in his family life, cheating on his wife and holding his son back from his dreams. Washington’s portrayal highlights the sympathy you could have for Troy more consistently than the play allows, making it a story not only of the way oppression eventually beats a man down, but the way you build a life despite of it. The play leaves it to the audience to decide if Troy can be forgiven or not, determine for themselves if he has truly gone to heaven. However, the movie uses lightening as well as physical cues throughout, to lead us to the interpretation that Troy has gone to heaven, and is ultimately a tragic character, rather than merely a sympathetic but unforgivable one. The film version ultimately gives the ambiguous ending of the play, whether or not Troy could ultimately be forgiven by his family, a definitive interpretation that he would be forgiven, that his faults did not make him irredeemable.
Systematic oppression has put Troy in his position, and though he tries his best, he falls short of living the life he intends. The way in which Troy tries but fails to measure up is clearer in the film, going beyond the stage-directions, which do not indicate Troy is showing emotion his words aren’t conveying. The film shows more humor and kindness in Troy then his stern words alone suggest in the play. Just through reading the play, it is possible to interpret Troy has someone who has lived up to society’s expectation of him, being cruel to his son, and cheating on his wife. The ways in which you can sympathize with him only emerging in specific instances. This is brought out more fully with Washington’s portrayal of the character, shifting the interpretation of Troy’s character and ultimate fate from ambiguous to solidly tragic and forgiven.
Specifically, Troy’s vulnerabilities are clearer in Washington’s portrayal, with soft, sad smiles where the play had no written direction other than stern words – highlighting the way he wasn’t only criticizing Cory, but protecting the only way he knew how. The physicality of Washington’s portrayal of Troy (referring to his facial expressions and tone of voice) leads viewers to a more sympathetic and understanding view of Troy than readers of the script may walk away with. The tone of voice Washington uses in key scenes differs from the tone you would expect from the play-script itself. In his speech to Cory where Troy is lecturing Cory “Who says I have to like you,” (Wilson 37) he is smiling and affectionate, almost joking with his son, there is humor as well as a lecture, rather than just the stern lecture of sacrifice it is in its written form. This interpretation of the play in the movie is further expressed by Cory’s reaction to singing the song with Raynell in the end of the film. While the play never lets us know directly whether Cory himself has forgiven his father for his faults, thus furthering the allowance of the readers to make their own conclusions of his character, the film has Cory crying as he sings, as he takes his mother’s rant about the good and bad parts of his father to heart; Cory accepts Troy as a flawed man, but a man who tried his best nonetheless, and leads the audience to this same interpretation.
Besides physicality, the other major way the film leads to the interpretation of Troy as a tragic character is lightning, most significantly, the lightning in the last scene. Troy’s brother Gabriel believes himself to be the archangel Gabriel, who is the messenger of God, and calls out for St. Peter to open the gates of heaven to let Troy in. The stage directions of the play indicate that the stage lights blackout after Gabriel blows his trumpet and the gates of heaven open to him, but it is ambiguous whether this means Troy has gone to heaven, or it is only a manifestation of Gabriel’s delusion, and could be played either way. The movie has bright gold across the sky, as the clouds part and open up, as the family stares up for several long seconds. The movie ends on golden light streaming through the tree into the backyard, rather than going straight to black after the sound of the trumpet. The end of the movie clearly lets you see that Troy has been forgiven in the eyes of God, rather than leaving it a possible manifestation of Gabriel’s mind.
Personally, my preferred interpretation of the play is to see Troy as a tragic figure, to see him as flawed but sympathetic, rather than irredeemable for his poor choices. Because he is flawed in a lot of ways, but he is human, and no human being has ever not made a mistake, including huge life-changing ones like his affair which results in Raynell. It is far easier to vilify someone, than to forgive them; it is easier to write someone off rather than look deeper into what lead to mistakes being made. Some of Troy’s choices were entirely on him, but others seem almost inevitable. He is harsh on Cory not because he doesn’t love him, but because systematic oppression has beaten his dreams out of him, and he can’t fix that for Cory, so he wants him not to be hurt by the battles Troy was never able to win. You can understand Troy’s behaviors, and forgive them, without excusing them. Troy’s motto seems to be “you gotta take the crookeds with the straights” (Wilson 94) and that is the interpretation of Troy’s character that the film leaves us with, which seems the honest interpretation. You forgive, because it is harder than anger, you take the good and the bad parts of life, and you make the best of the situations you have no power over, because you have power over yourself.
Washington, Denzel, director. Fences. Paramount Pictures, 2016.
Wilson, August. Fences. New Mexico Repertory Theatre, 1989.