In “Fences,” Viola Davis Captures the Strength of Black Women
Women like Rose are both loved and rendered invisible. They are sought after for the sanctuary they create — and also disrespected.
by Itoro Udofia
Given the many heartaches and frustrations of 2016, it felt appropriate to finish the year by watch Fences, a story that holds love for the Black experience.
I’ve always been an admirer of Fences writer August Wilson’s commitment to write stories about the Black existence. As a playwright, he was unapologetic about prioritizing the lives of those everyday folks resembling people we know: our mothers, our fathers, our brothers, cousins, friends, us. I was thrilled that Denzel Washington brought such an important playwright’s work to the big screen, allowing more people access to such a great story. Plus, all the melanin on the screen gave life and a sense of affirmation.
The actors performed like their lives depended on it — reflecting that we are living in urgent times as a country. They understood their characters could propel us to recall the stirrings of our own hearts. To remember the memories of our own backyards and fences, the four walls of our growing up and growing into our own coming of age. Watching Fences felt deeply intimate and close to the core.
Each of the characters deserves their own analysis, but for me, the one I couldn’t stop thinking about was Rose. Viola Davis’ portrayal of Rose — for which she won a Golden Globe award Sunday night — hit close to home. Rose was home. I couldn’t help thinking of the many “Roses” I’ve known — dark skinned, spirited and tender. They are both loved and rendered invisible. They are sought after for the sanctuary they create — and also disrespected. No wonder they need pricks against the skin to guard against the insult and injury thrust upon them. The Roses I’ve known have lived in such contradiction, very much reflecting the contradictions of a racist system.
Rose was an ordinary woman trying to build some place safe where the people close to her could experience a bit of peace and love. But for a Black woman of her time, and for many Black women now, simply having the gumption to create a sacred place for one’s family is an extraordinary feat. Perhaps it was watching her navigate how to keep things afloat, only to see everything she held dear crumble, that reminded me that we are indeed extraordinary.
My heart broke when I watched her cry in the comforts of a church, reminding me of many Black women letting out their wails and tears to the pastor, to the congregation, to the circle of sisters praying for them, before they had to wake up the next day to weather the world of uncertainty again.
Rose didn’t have the epic monologues her husband Troy had, but she had a quiet presence and fierceness of her own. A power that went beyond words and into almost a meditative state that many of us develop to face this world. The delicate art of observation and intimately knowing one’s innate power. I truly believe that this power and wisdom has kept many of the Black women in my life alive.
Rose outlived her husband. She did not have time to busy herself with the inevitability of death, because there was much to do while alive. A child to raise, a house to keep, a legacy to pass on to the next generation. Her death would have to wait until a more appropriate time to leave. It was hard to stare at her, hard to watch her struggle. You couldn’t glamorize the suffering or make it more “palatable.” All you could do was shout back at the screen and say, “Truth!”