“A Brief Observation on Denzel Washington’s Vision of August Wilson’s ‘Fences’ & Black Male Infidelity” by Dr. T. Hasan Johnson

{{Spoilers}}

Noticed something about the representation of Black men in popular media.

I’m watching Kurt Russell in Tombstone (1993) after having watched Denzel’s Fences. Russell plays a newly retired lawman Wyatt Earp moving to Tombstone to strike it rich. He’s married and moves to town with his wife and brothers. He and his wife are subtly unhappy but not obviously so. His wife is suffering from some medical ailment and is addicted to drugs. She’s portrayed as not seeing his vision and isn’t really connected to him…and she’s a bit self-absorbed. She also doesn’t know how to support him after his brother is killed. Earp finds new perspective with a new woman and through the course of the film, the story justifies his choice by highlighting his wife’s disconnection from him. By the end you feel sorry for Earp and feel he’s justified in moving on to a new relationship.

kurt-russell-tombstone

In Fences, Troy starts to feel disconnected from his wife and isolated…his sacrifices for the family feeling all-consuming. He, too, seeks solace elsewhere. In the past, men’s social obligation was to provide at all costs, regardless of how one felt. There was (and often still isn’t) even a language for how a man felt about the weight of being socially-expected to provide for family, and it’s not surprising that such labor often guaranteed a shorter lifespan (I still marvel at how many families’ “Big Mamas” I meet who lost their husbands decades ago).

What I notice is that in this way both movies are actually quite similar. Both men essentially feel the same, but in popular media narratives men’s pain has to be immediately erased in observation of women’s pain and sacrifice. Despite the differences between both characters’ race, time period, class status, wealth opportunities, historical existence, and profession they are nonetheless linked as blue-collar men negotiating society’s expectations in regard to manhood. (Although Earp existed, he’s “represented” in this film and is thus an imaginative fixture, whereas “Troy” did not exist–but there are many everyday “Troys” in Black America). Whether in the Old West or in 1950s Pittsburg, PA–despite being separated by race–neither group of lower middle-class men controlled patriarchal standards in society. Nevertheless, in both contexts these men (and many of us viewers) learned to defer to women when in conflict. For example, notice in the Fences trailer how Denzel’s “Troy” mentions he’s been standing in the same place for 18 years and Viola’s “Rose” immediately follows with, “I’ve been standing with you!!” Such a shaming tactic disallows men to actually articulate their own feelings about social obligation and sacrifice–right or wrong. The resulting, acceptable form of male emoting?

Silence. He’s supposed to stand in awe of
her sacrifice while ignoring his own.

The difference between the films however is that White men can have context and narrative, and the viewer is pre-conditioned to allow for it to be so (Earp’s leaving of his wife is somewhat heroic as she dies in obscurity by the end), whereas Black men are guilty, inconsiderate, selfish, and heartless when they are unfaithful. So “Troy” spends the rest of his life being punished for his choice, effectively remaining “womanless.”

issa-lawrence

In essence, we accept Black women’s narratives as normative and defining of the moral tone of the story, whereas in White movies White men can be the moral core–even when socially deplorable in their decisions. My point is not that he’s right or wrong for his infidelity, but that it’s not acceptable to consider men’s vulnerabilities in regard to such a thing as marital infidelity (but interestingly enough I still read defenses for Issa’s cheating on Lawrence on HBO’s ‘Insecure,’ pushing for people to try to understand “how she felt”).

Alas, whether right or wrong, I push for Black men to be better understood…and thankfully I’m not alone. There is a movement brewing…

[Sidenote: Don’t get me wrong y’all… Denzel’s no fool. He understands that to thrive in Black media one must cater to Black female interest. After all, since the 1970s, women have become a market force unto themselves…and in the Black community, no demographic (with money) consumes media at a greater rate. So magazines, TV channels, and films have increasingly targeted Black female consumers and made them the focus of narrative interest since the 1970s.

With Fences, even though it’s focused on a 1950s Black family in Pittsburgh, Viola’s “Rose” highlights both Black women’s strength(s), but also the 50s-era notion of Black women’s silent yet dignified tolerating of Black men’s “triflingness.” In other words, her having endured Troy’s selfishness pays a compliment to Black women while also foreshadowing the upcoming feminist era where her strength is underlined that much more. Such a gesture explains the strategic value of Denzel bringing Wilson’s play to film now, as it seeks to target both Black women and men (as Washington and others such as Fuqua have sought to do lately).]

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2 thoughts on ““A Brief Observation on Denzel Washington’s Vision of August Wilson’s ‘Fences’ & Black Male Infidelity” by Dr. T. Hasan Johnson

  1. The problem with movies that focuses on adultery is that adultery does not represent the norm in failing marriages. Marriages today fail primarily due to women leaving for the vague reason of “dissatisfaction”. Thus adultery is the cheap and cowardly way out. Show movies on how 80% of women dissolve marriages and that nearly 100% of women with children dissolve marriages. It is women that are failing commitment and this is the primary reason today that intelligent men are avoiding marriage.

    1. You just mean “male adultery,” because it seems to me that women aren’t publicly held to scrutiny in regard to their adulterous relationships…even those that lead to divorce. Viola’s “Rose” was as innocent as the driven snow, and I think women preferred that depiction because it absolved them of being culpable in the deterioration of a marriage.

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