In true Oscars fashion, Denzel Washington, nominated for Best Actor for "Fences," and arguably the greatest actor of his generation, was snubbed. Casey Affleck, even with sexual harassment allegations surrounding his rise, got the nod for Best Actor in a strong Role in "Manchester By The Sea."
During Affleck’s acceptance speech, Denzel gave another “gif”-able, awards-worthy moment, walking a line between being respectful as the actor on stage praised Washington while gripping what should’ve been his award and staring Affleck down, knowing damn well that this is all a sham and the guy up there is a cornball who gave a pretty tepid, uninspiring speech.
Then again, black greatness shouldn't be defined or measured by white institutions.
Still, Washington not winning for "Fences" stung. It was not only a loss for one very great actor, but a loss for nuanced representation of black fathers in movies where a black male character is rarely free to be flawed, frustrating, favored, and forgiven.
Troy Maxson, played by Washington, just makes bad decisions throughout the whole damn movie, wrestling with his demons as a former baseball player who was just past his prime when Jackie Robinson integrated baseball. He drowns his frustrations in pints of gin. He ignores the advice of his best friend Bono as he destroys his relationships with everyone around him. His wife Rose, played by the incomparable Viola Davis, bears the brunt of his failures. He takes her love, support, and long-suffering for granted. Troy is a black man trying to make it in a racist world, but as a black woman, Rose has her burdens too, and he forgets that. He fathers a child outside of his marriage with Rose and in his impenitent "ain't shit"-ness, asks her to mother the child when he is informed that the biological mother dies while giving birth. He destroys his relationship with his son Cory as he stops him from being recruited to play college football. He doesn't support his older son Lyon's efforts in pursuing his music career.
The ugly complexity of Troy matters and while much of that has to do with August Wilson's brilliant play, Washington brings it to life by pulling from many of his previous roles: He tries the same tough love approach to fatherhood as Jake Shuttlesworth in "He Got Game"; he is a womanizer like Bleek Gilliam in "Mo’ Better Blues"; his conniving asshole levels put detective Alonzo Harris in the movie "Training Day" to shame.
Images of the black father as a nurturer are in short supply on television and in film. In "Fences," we have to dig for the positive moments that Troy shares within the convoluted relationship he has with Cory. The movie is triggering for young black men like me, and drums up a whirlwind of emotions tied to how fatherhood operates within my life, and how fathers pass love on to their children.
My father was and still is there for me always, but I see a little bit—just a little bit—of Troy in him, and I think the many other people see their fathers in him, too. Though apparently not Academy Award voters who are 91 percent white, 76 percent male, and mostly over the age of 60.
There is no way I could ever describe my father as "ain't shit" the way I describe Troy. In fact, my father has been my very best friend. But what they share is a common affliction: Black men conditioned not to show much outward affection to their sons and project themselves as indestructible and somewhat devoid of tenderness. My father navigated this way better than Troy, which only makes me understand Troy's flaws even more. My father took an alternative approach, and told me he loved me through his actions.
When I was younger we would play basketball together, go to the mall and spend what seemed like an hour in Sam Goodie. On his days off, he would take me with him to the hospital where he worked, as he handled small things here and there. During the summers he would randomly ask, “Aye man you wanna get a Slurpee?” We spent an inordinate amount of time in Wal-Mart. He would always stop and talk to people he knew from high school, and people he didn’t know at all in random parking lots and aisles in department stores for forever. I think his overall positive effect on people set the foundation for me to say to myself subconsciously, “I want to be like him.”
He and my mother sat at all my games cheering me on. He taught me that the world will keep turning. He taught me the importance of self-awareness. He is the reason I know how to make the perfect pancake; the reason I occasionally drink dark liquor. He is the reason I don't mind parking in the back of an empty parking lot, and why I don't sit in restaurants with my back facing the door. He is the type of man that my mother wanted to name her only son after and is the type of man I would want to name my son after, should I be fortunate enough to start a family of my own someday. As I continue to grow into young adulthood I carry my father's name, strong brow line, bottom row of teeth, sensibilities, and teachings with me as I forge my own identity on the foundation he built for me.
In the final scene of "Fences," Jim Jackson’s 1928 rendition of 'Old Dog Blue' serves a dual purpose. Cory and Raynell, the daughter Troy fathered outside of his marriage with Rose, sing the song together. Raynell associates the song with positive memories of Troy because she did not experience him in total before his death, whereas the song for Cory is attached to so much pain. 'Old Dog Blue' is, in this view, symbolic of not only mourning and loss, but also the idea that we all affect people in our lives in different ways. Raynell’s presence and attitude as the family prepares to attend Troy’s funeral is the only semblance of redemption Troy is afforded during the whole movie.
On days he got home from work before my mother did, my father would morph Louis Jordan's 1949 'Beans and Cornbread' into “peas and corn 'done had a fight” as he poured hot peas and corn into a bowl, adding, “you better eat every last drop.” It's a tune that I carry with me, even if there isn't any corn, peas, beans, or cornbread in my bowl. It is, to me, what Jim Jackson's 'Old Dog Blue' is to both Raynell and Cory in "Fences": An accompaniment to a father, flaws and all, who gives love and lessons to his children in the only way he knew how to without a guide as to what was ethically absolute.