Often when a play is translated to screen the story’s texture and tone expands and intensifies with the camera’s roving attention to and multiplication of location: topography, industry, ecology, street life, farms. Under Denzel Washington’s direction, however, this version of Fences remains constricted to the backyard, where the literal fence is being built, or to other small segments of Troy (D. Washington) and Rose’s (Viola Davis) house, thereby signaling other sorts of fences. Rolling my memory back through the film, I can recall only a few scenes outside of the house.
There are the street scenes: children playing outside as Troy and Jim (Stephen Henderson) amble home from work, jawing about this and that; Rose hurrying down to the church with cakes for a bake sale; and Cory (Jovan Adepo) pausing before a Marine recruitment office. Other than those, one brief scene takes place in a hallway where Troy waits to talk to a union rep, one at the church, and a more strained and lingering scene unfolds in a dark, nearly empty bar. (I’m bracketing Gabriel’s (Mykelti Williamson) street scenes because those, too, are filmed almost claustrophobically as if to index how Gabriel is fenced in by his mental illness, even when he is in wide open spaces).
The fenced-in spaces do not render the film static, however. The camera twists and paces within these tight spaces like the repetitive, desperate walk of caged tigers. Yes, the characters move; they sit and walk and stand; they yell and joke and swing and cry. But their bodies don’t suggest agency or practice; rather, the roiling camerawork tracks their emotions, the frantic pacing of their affects.
I was reminded, as I watched, of Elizabeth Povinelli’s comments on tense, and of Orrin Pilkey’s comments on enigmatic shoreline currents. Pilkey is an ocean geologist who has tried and failed to understand what happens to ocean currents as they come to land. Deep ocean currents have been mapped and studied successfully, but the chaos at the shoreline remains elusive. When rolling water meets its limit in land, the predictable patterns shift to a constantly emerging order that cannot be grasped by established scientific methods.
In Economies of Abandonment Povinelli contrasts the incommensurate grammars of time (tense) assumed by the Australian settler colonial government and by her Aboriginal kin and friends. She writes, “the social divisions of tense help shape how social belonging, abandonment, and endurance are enunciated and experienced within late liberalism” (p. 11). “Thus,” she continues, “how various narratives of belonging, abandonment, and endurance are socially enunciated and experienced depends in part on the ways that the relationship between the time of narration and the event narrated, or, put in another way, the event of narration and the narrated event, is grammatically marked” (p. 12).
In legal battles over land and mining claims in Australia, for instance, the contrast between an assumed past (mountains are Not-Life) and an assumed emergence (mountains are Dreaming sites that require ongoing attention and care) shapes legal judgments but hinders substantive understanding between the two tense-users. On a more domestic level, Povinelli argues that “intimate events” are also “performative tense projects”, encounters that map the desire, granting and foreclosure of affirmation, agency, and inheritance. Tense, that is the use of, orientation toward, and assumptions about when events [will] occur[red] grids the possibility of interrelational and intergenerational recognition.
And so: The generational and gender relations in Fences, brilliantly acted and beautifully filmed, indicate ever emerging orders of incommensurate tenses that shape the heartache of being African American in the 1950s…and before…and after.