Produced by Blumhouse Productions
Written and directed by Jordan Peele
Distributed by Universal Pictures
Produced and distributed by Paramount Pictures
Directed by Denzel Washington
Screenplay based on August Wilson’s play
From what I had read in advance of seeing Get Out, a film written and directed by Jordan Peele, I had expected a cheesy get-whitey comedy. I’m happy to report it’s not that at all. The film is a spot-on satire that hoists liberals on their own petard. It also exhibits a rancid racial paranoia that I’ve come to think peculiarly afflicts individuals of mixed-race ancestry who find themselves caught in our ongoing racial crossfire. (Peele’s mother is white, and his father, black. As a consequence I suspect he has a reservoir stocked with embarrassing moments on which to draw for satiric inspiration. In our United States, for all our hoopla about diversity, miscegenation can have this effect. It’s also worth mentioning that Peele is married to a woman of Italian and Jewish heritage.)
Let’s begin with what’s best in the film: the portrayal of wealthy white suburbanites besotted with blacks, especially blacks who have attended college and have demonstrable athletic ability. This comes to the fore when Rose (Allison Williams) prepares to take her black boyfriend, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), to her parents’ lakeside home for the weekend. Chris nervously asks if she’s told them he’s, you know, black. Rose breezily dismisses his concern. “My father would have voted for Obama a third time if it were possible.” I should mention that Chris is played by an actor who is British by way of Uganda and seems by virtue of his features and ultra-dark skin to have, unlike Barack Obama, zero European genes in his makeup. This seems hardly an accident. Peele evidently wanted to keep the racial difference in his story as stark as possible.
Arriving at Rose’s home, Chris finds himself cordially greeted by her father and mother, Dean (Bradley Whitford) and Missy (Catherine Keener) Armitage. They both hug him with almost unseemly enthusiasm. Soon, Dean is taking Chris on a tour of his house, which is appointed with art and curios he’s collected on his global travels. “It’s such a privilege to see the world through other cultures,” gushes this man whose surname proclaims his imperial English heritage. When Chris meets the household’s two black servants, Dean chuckles apologetically. A cliché, he admits, wealthy whites employing black servants. But, he assures Chris, he had hired them to care for his aged parents, and when the old folks died, he couldn’t bear to let them go. These retainers are weirdly dreamy and alarmingly affectless, not to mention tirelessly submissive. Something’s up.
The real fun begins when guests show up for the Armitages’ annual garden party, all of them pasty-white parodies of Caucasian gaucheness. Meeting Chris, they clumsily strive to ingratiate themselves. One fellow in his 70’s introduces himself as having been a golf pro. “I know Tiger Woods,” he assures Chris.
A 50-ish woman squeezes Chris’s biceps and, eyeing his crotch, asks Rose daintily, “Is it true?”
Meanwhile Dean has taken to completing his sentences with “My man.”
Growing up, Peele must have had his fill of this fawning behavior, and here he’s getting his own back with his scalding allegory. But things become darker (pun intended) when Chris finds himself hypnotized by Missy. She just wants to cure him of smoking, she explains. While under her influence, Chris feels himself to be paralyzed and imagines he’s descending into what Missy calls the sunken place.
Upon returning to normal consciousness, he’s entirely spooked, so to speak, and soon realizes that he’s been caught in a sinister scheme that exploits blacks in the cause of rejuvenating envious whites. At one point Dean points to a photo of his grandfather running the mile in the 1936 Olympics. “He lost to Jesse Owens,” Dean observes with a tight smile, and he never got over the disappointment. I won’t reveal what follows, other than to say it’s a well-calibrated, slow-boil horror satire wittily crafted to disconcert well-heeled bien-pensants both white and black who insist, in public at least, that they don’t notice racial differences, while loudly deploring those who do. Peele succeeds in giving us all cause for self-examination.
Fences is another exploration of race in America written by a mixed-race writer, the late playwright August Wilson, whose father was a German immigrant, and mother, a black housekeeper. Perhaps being of mixed race imbues an author with a deeper, more objective understanding of the issue. Since its original opening as a play in 1985, Wilson’s drama has had seemingly innumerable productions and gone on to become a staple of English courses across the land. Wilson counted Jorge Luis Borges, on whom The Rockford Institute bestowed the T.S. Eliot Award in 1983, among his greatest influences. Wilson died of liver cancer in 2005, having completed the screenplay of this film.
Why has Fences become such a mainstream winner? For one thing, it comes appreciably close to telling the truth about race in America in a manner that’s acceptable to both blacks and whites, a fact that’s won it detractors on the left who think it’s too forgiving of whites.
Wilson tells the story of a forceful, flawed man named Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington, who also directed the film) who, despite having been beaten down by race prejudice, both actual and imagined, is still strong enough to wrestle with his fate. There’s a problem, however. He’s hobbled by fantasies of grandeur.
Wilson designed his play to suggest that Troy is a modern avatar of the tragic hero, a man who strives mightily with his fate but is blind to his flaws. To begin with there’s his name: Troy is under siege by circumstances, both those beyond his understanding and those of his own making. Then there are the echoes of Greek tragedy, most obvious being his libation observances. Whenever he opens a new pint to celebrate his Friday nights, he pours a little gin on the ground as if to placate the gods. And then there’s Troy’s penchant to tempt fate. He’s given to boasting playfully about his encounter with death. He imaginatively claims to have wrestled with the reaper for three days to gain more time on earth. Death in his story takes the form of a man in a white-hooded robe who, in Troy’s telling, multiplies into a small army of Klansmen. His wife, Rose (Viola Davis), chastises him for his blasphemous fantasy. The reality, she reminds him, was that he had a bout of pneumonia. But Troy just laughs. He much prefers his heroic myth to Rose’s drab reality.
When we first meet Troy, he seems a happy man presiding proudly over his Pittsburgh home with an apparent sense of accomplishment. As the drama progresses, however, we see that Troy’s happiness is flecked with bitterness. In the film’s opening scene, he’s riding the back of a sanitation truck. He’s just completed his day collecting garbage. He jokes good-humoredly with Bono, his coworker. Bono, however, is worried. Earlier in the day, Troy had challenged both the union and management. Why, he wanted to know, were the colored employees restricted to hauling refuse? Why weren’t they given opportunities to drive the trucks as well? As a consequence, he’s been invited to speak with a manager the following day. Bono fears he’ll be fired for his impertinence. Troy scoffs at Bono’s fear, but we sense he’s not so sure of his footing. It’s his fixed belief founded on his past experience that the white men running the company have not and will not give their black employees an even break. At the terminal, however, his assumption is exploded. Prominent among the managerial staff are two well-dressed black men. And, what do you know, the next day Troy’s given a driving assignment.
This disconnect between Troy’s assumptions and reality recurs throughout the film. When Troy discovers that his 17-year-old son, Cory, is being recruited by a college-football scout, Troy immediately attempts to quash the boy’s hopes. White men only want to use you, he warns the boy. But it’s 1957. Hank Aaron and Wes Covington are doing well enough, Cory counters. Troy is adamant. He’s locked into his experiences in the 30’s and 40’s. He had starred in the Negro League but was barred from playing in the majors because of his race. Is this true? Hard to say. He conveniently leaves out that he developed his diamond skills playing ball in prison while serving a 15-year sentence for robbery and murder.
The 62-year-old Washington plays 53-year-old Troy eschewing Hollywood vanity. He wears baggy clothing that emphasizes his widening, softening body. Mortality is visibly catching up with Troy, and this has led him, as it so often has other men, to take up with a younger woman who is now pregnant with his child. When forced to confess this to Rose, he explains it’s not that he loves her less, but that with this woman he feels renewed. “She firmed up my backbone; and I got to thinking that if I tried, I just might be able to steal second. I stood on first base for 18 years” of marriage. It’s a monstrous thing to tell your wife, but Troy’s so self-absorbed and self-pitying (he even manages to blame racism for his adultery) that he’s blinded to what his words are doing to Rose. She finally lets him have it. This scene is played by Washington and Davis with a furious poignancy. He’s ridiculously self-regarding, and she’s remorselessly angry.
She brings up her own family experience. “Everybody got different fathers and mothers. Can’t hardly tell who’s who. I ain’t never wanted that for none of my children.” In three sentences, she encapsulates the familiar pathology of sexual carelessness that used to be especially pronounced among the black underclass but has now made it into the white middle class, as the young have increasingly assumed marriage is not necessary to parenting.
The showdown between Rose and Troy forms the crux of the play. The actors convey its raw terror and pitiable shame with startling immediacy. Davis wondrously brings home the truth of what it means to be a betrayed woman. She makes us fully feel its dread. Washington gives us a broken man who, his heroic fantasies having fled, becomes an object of contempt.
Wilson may not have created a tragedy in the classic sense, but his play leaves us thoroughly shaken, which is what successful tragedy is supposed to do. This is unsettling stuff, and meant to be. My only reservation is Washington’s attempt to provide a ray of sunshine (literally) at the end. It’s a false note, I’m afraid.