Points North

By James Fife

Despite our inclination toward movie-watching, Marilyn and I don’t get to the cinema very often. For instance, we are closing in on our second anniversary of buying our home in James Bay and we still have never found the time to make it to a movie while in Victoria. The result is that we frequently miss seeing films that make the public buzz or even make it to the Oscars. But we did manage to see a recent release, “Fences,” with Denzel Washington and Viola Davis. Like all good movies, plays, or books, it sets you thinking a lot afterward.

It’s the story of an African-American family living in Pittsburgh in the 1950s. The setting naturally means the characters are forced to confront the social attitudes of the day and try to come to grips with them. For instance, in the first scene, the main character, Troy, is wondering whether his speaking out about the unfairness of the city hiring only White trash- truck drivers will wind up getting him fired. But those social tensions are background and what holds the viewer’s interest is not the big-picture social history, but how those forces form and determine the personal histories of the family members.

The theme is evolution: as the wife Rose states early on, “Times are changing.” She says this in response to her husband Troy’s cynical insistence that Black people will always remain subordinate in American society. He finds his grim prediction reason enough to squash the dreams of betterment his teenage son tries to nurture. This and many other incidents and lines in the film made me think that this story—set 60 years ago—is still a story of our times. Ours is an era when so many are anxious to erect walls and barriers to keep others out. It struck me that the backyard fence Troy is perpetually building is really nothing compared to the fences he has built between himself and his sons or the huge wall of betrayal he erects between Rose and himself. By the same token, the physical wall the U.S. threatens to put up cannot compare with the psychological barrier it raises to mutual understanding and empathy among peoples.

One of the thoughts “Fences” inspired, quite unexpected, was a reminder of how, even in my own family, there was a history of pushing against the tide in a time when things were very different from today. As the youngest child, when I reached school age, it became possible for my mother to consider working outside the home, still not something common for women to do in the early 1960s. She initially took a retail job, which was thought “suitable” work for a woman. But she was not content with that and decided she would try for a clerk position opening with the local post office. That was definitely not considered suitable. In fact, there was not and had never been a female clerk in that post office in those days. The expected resistance to her effort arose, but I recall her digging in her heels, coming to view it as not just applying for a job, which it was, and should have been, but a fight, a crusade. She had the gumption to enlist the support of our U.S. senator to break down the walls at the local post office, and she was eventually given her fair chance to compete for the position. In the end, she scored the highest on the post office exam in that branch—which is not surprising, given the hours she pored over the study materials to be sure she well and truly had every right to be there.

When I think back on how my mom had to fight for such a simple thing as the right to be considered for a job in the post office, it amazes me, viewed from where we are now, how we have changed. Now, in the midst of Women’s History Month, I think about where women stand in public life compared to even my mother’s time. In Victoria, I live in a place where my city councilor, mayor, MLA, and premier are all women.

Photo by trudy chiswell

When I’m reminded of how things have changed—even within the limited scope of my short life—I feel less pessimistic about the setbacks. It may be two steps forward, one step back. But that leaves us a step ahead. While we all put up fences throughout our lives, the barriers and walls that separate and segregate us continue to fall. I’m not so sure my mother would fully “own” some of the changes that have occurred; the same as Troy can’t accept that Black people playing major league baseball is a sign of genuine progress. But they both made their incremental contribution to those advances. And that’s probably all that any of us can, or need aspire to, achieve; it’s accumulative.

During “Fences,” a clouded sky breaks at an opportune moment and shafts of sunlight flood down. Of course, it’s just a break in the clouds. But to the characters on screen, it’s a sign with special meaning. In the same way, “Fences” is just a movie. But it holds a special meaning to me, reminding me of my mom’s wall-tumbling many years ago. And like the movie sons, I can recognize that a part of me perpetuates a part of her. That’s definitely worth the cost of a theatre ticket.