Denzel, Viola and Why We Need More Fences

I don’t know about you, but I’m emerging slowly from a week of intense family time, Kwanzaa celebration and lots of eating and drinking.

This week I’ve been late for stuff and spent one whole day just fuzzy headed!

But one thing I’m clear about is that I need Black Arts especially as we head into Trump’s “make America great again.” For me Black Arts is art that draws on our traditions and cultures with the intention of edifying our community and nourishing humankind.

This brings me to the film Fences which was directed by Denzel Washington and featured him and my fave Viola Davis. August Wilson’s most produced work, Fences was the closest he got to a Hollywood film deal. However, Wilson took a controversial stand in 1990 and publicly declared “I want a “black director” for Fences and got a lot of criticism. It’s taken twenty-five years for Denzel to deliver on August’s dream.

Fences shows us that 1950s America wasn’t so “great” for Black people. For example, its main character, Troy, never got to play in the Major Leagues because they barred Black players. By the time Jackie Robinson was invited into Major League baseball, many great athletes including Satchel Paige and the imaginary Troy had already aged beyond their prime.

However, what’s most important about Fences is that it elevates African American culture, language, and storytelling into a beautiful human experience. The characters in Fences counter degrading stereotypes that fill the cultural mainstream. Fences’ Troy is flawed, for sure, but he is also engaged in loving respectful relationships. He values family and friends rather than money, fame or consumer goods. Moreover, he tells stories that illuminate intergenerational trauma, humor, and philosophy in a Black vernacular that is rhythmic, sophisticated and accessible. I just gotta say it: August Wilson is to Black vernacular as to Shakespeare is to English.

We need this kind of art as we shift from Obama to Trump, from Michelle to Malina. We need stories that remind us of our humanity; I need stories that counter the limited stereotypes that pervade television. This is especially true as America increasingly re-segregates, and many whites have no meaningful relationships with real Black people in their everyday lives. According to Slate, 75% of white Americans have no contact with people of color.

But you don’t need me to tell you to go see Fences. Denzel and Viola have a huge marketing machine that will make sure you do that. Instead, I recommend that you support local Black Arts in your community. Get to know local Black artists and become part of their audience. Build relationships and become part of cross cultural art making. Fences deserves support, but any ticket or book you buy in support of local artists could literally make the difference between an organization surviving and dying.

If you live in the Lancaster Area, come to Black Fire: Celebrating Black Arts on Sunday Jan. 8 at 3pm-4:30pm at 24 W. Walnut St. Hosted by Theatre for Transformation and Fruition, this event is free and open to the public and will feature Lancaster Black writers, visual artists and musicians.

Theatre for Transformation will be doing lots of stuff in Los Angeles, Boston, Elizabethtown, Lancaster, and Philadelphia. Come and be part of Black Arts. Denzel, Viola you are both welcome too!

Peace and love! -Dr. Amanda Kemp