I recently took my son to see Fences, the film starring and directed by Denzel Washington. It was definitely a worthy use of our time.
My first thought, watching the film, was how extraordinarily talented the cast was, led, of course, by Washington himself. Widely acknowledged as one of the top acting talents of his generation, he proved himself charismatic as well. The film feels more like a play; it didn’t seem like there was a camera breakaway for the first half hour and Washington’s raconteur character keeps the viewer mesmerized.
But charisma doesn’t necessarily translate into a sympathetic character and it didn’t entirely in this case. Washington portrays a former baseball player in the 1950s. He was just a bit too old to translate his talents from the Negro leagues to the majors after the latter were integrated and his residual bitterness is palpable in his relationship with his sons.
The younger son is a football talent, but the father sabotages his opportunities, in part due to his own missed opportunities and also because of a need to establish dominance in his relationships, never for a moment giving an inch.
So much of the film is about lessons in humility, richly multilayered ones. In fatherhood, humility is one of the most necessary and important character traits that can be exhibited. One must learn to put your child ahead of yourself in every facet of your life.
Washington’s character does this in some ways and fails spectacularly in others. Having missed out on his baseball dream, he works for years as a garbage collector, fighting to move ahead as even in that job, he faces an uphill battle having worked for years on the back of the truck, while driver jobs are held for whites only.
While race doesn’t dominate the film, this does bring to the fore an issue where race and humility intersect. Throughout the slavery and segregation eras, humility was a necessary survival mechanism for African-Americans. If you broke any of a myriad of racial taboos, you could lose more than a job or money. Your life could be at stake.
This remains true today, in a lesser, but still important way, as most African-American parents work hard to teach their children how to interact with authority figures, specifically police officers. Failing to show proper humility can still result in disaster.
The lessons here aren’t unique to African-Americans, but some may apply to them more viscerally. For while the practice of humility is important to relationships, including those of Washington’s character, especially with his wife and sons, being forced to swallow one’s pride too often can have its own consequences, in some cases, leading to acting out and self-destructive behavior that damages one’s relationships.
This comes out in the behavior of young black men often today as the need for humility in one area of life seems to encourage outlandish, brash, or self-glorifying behavior in others. This can be done in a healthy way, such as the brilliant humor of Muhammad Ali, but it can also express itself in ways that are damaging to both the individual and others in the crossfire.
We’ve seen this in those police interactions mentioned above. If you cannot understand why someone acted out when confronted by an officer, imagine being stopped, seemingly for no reason, time after time. Eventually, the frustration boils over, sometimes in dangerous ways.
Washington displays these behaviors in all of his relationships, leading to difficulties with his wife, children, and friends.
There are humility lessons for those others in the film as well. Without giving too much away, they ultimately must confront how they view Washington’s character, whether to break with him and all that he represents or to take his actions within the full context of his life. Should they make allowances for his behavior or cut him off for their own self-preservation? As in all of the best narratives, the decision is not easy.
What isn’t a difficult decision is whether to see this film. Go. You won’t be disappointed. You will learn something and you may even learn something useful to apply in your own life.