Fences: A Christian Reflection

February 14, 2017
Leading up to the Academy Awards on February 26, we will be featuring reviews on some of the movies that were nominated in the “Best Picture” category. Return to iAt throughout this week to read more reviews. And, if you have watched the movies, give us your own movie review by leaving a comment.

I can count on one hand the number of plays I have seen in my thirty-eight years of life. I’m just not a big play person. It might stem from the fact that my wife decided it was a good idea to take me to see Wicked the same night the University of Georgia played Auburn in football. For the record, Georgia got annihilated that night and I really enjoyed the play. Still, I keep my play attendance to a minimum.

But the movie adaptation of August Wilson’s Fences was intriguing enough for me to want to see it with my wife this week. Besides, Denzel Washington and Viola Davis had leading roles in the film and I could watch the two of them read Mein Kampf in a dark, quiet room. I love what they bring to the craft as actors.

The movie developed like a play. It had tons of dialogue and very few scenes. It was still powerful and moving, even for a play-adverse person like me. A few of moments in the movie led me to reflect on the historical role of the church in family matters, and my own personal Christian responsibilities to my family and those in my sphere of influence.

Mental Health and the Church

One of the characters in the film has obvious mental health issues. The family struggles with challenges that come with that. You could sense the palpable shame—and guilt—the actors felt in the way they skirted around the mental health issue present in their family.

Traditionally, some churches haven’t always made room for mental health treatment and counseling. Instead, mental health was treated as “spiritual attacks” that needed deliverance. Gratefully, some churches have now started to offer counseling and accommodations for those congregants who have family members with mental health challenges. May Christ’s Church continue to forge a path forward when it comes to mental health and affirm the image of God in all people.

Defining Fatherhood

As a black male, this aspect of the film hit home the most. The lead actor goes to great lengths to provide for his family, but does so out of obligation. He feels like he owes it to his son and wife to take care of them. And he lets them know about it at every turn. This is his version of fatherhood, obviously skewed by his relationship with his own father.

In one scene, the son asks his father a question: “How come you ain’t never liked me?”

The father’s response is worth nothing:

“Like you? I go outta here every morning, I bust my butt ’cause I like you? You’re about the biggest fool I ever saw. A man is supposed to take care of his family. You live in my house, feed your belly with my food, put your behind on my bed because you’re my son. It’s my duty to take care of you, I owe a responsibility to you, I ain’t got to like you!”

I trembled as I watched this scene. Obligatory fatherhood leads to resentment and fear. Real fatherhood doesn’t flow from obligation, but gratefulness and love. Real fathers are grateful for the opportunity to steward another’s life. They love in real, tangible ways. Provision flows out of that love, but it doesn’t replace it. With absent gratefulness and love, fathers can fall into the routine of doing stuff for their children to fulfill a commitment—as if children are like monthly car notes to be paid.

Parental Expectations

We have heard stories of children crushed under the burden of parental expectations. More often than not, it comes in the form of celebrity/sports moms and dads who expect too much from their offspring. These parents live out their own dreams through their children, and it winds up wounding the child for life.

But what happens when a parent’s expectations crush a child’s dream? Fences provides a good example of a parent trying to protect his child from this broken world. The father knows what is best for his child’s future and it doesn’t involve what the child dreams about. It is very easy for parents to fall into this behavior. We are called to be stewards, but we’re also called to dream with our children.

I love basketball. But if my son wants to play piano, I’ll be THAT dad at recitals. If he wants to gulp act in plays, I’ll be the first person in line to buy tickets for the premiere. Parents, stewardship is never about us. It’s always about taking what God places in your hand and cultivating it in ways that bring God glory.

I went to see Fences to hear some good dialogue, but left with a stronger conviction to lead a Christ-honoring life in my marriage and in the body of Christ. This is one play adaptation that will have an impact on me for years to come.

This movie review originally appeared on John’s personal blog, and has been reposted with his permission. Click here for more great content on his site.

About the Author
  • John Richards currently serves as the Managing Director of the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism at Wheaton College. He is also a board member of the Reformed African American Network (RAAN). A lawyer and seminary graduate, John is passionate about studying and preaching God's Word. He has spent the past decade leading others in group bible studies using seminary-level tools. John lives in Chicago, Illinois with his wife Sheridan, son, John III aka Scooter, and daughter, Shiloh.

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  1. Loved this movie- there were so many layers- I loved Viola’s baptism in her church, her church work and her love for the baby from her husband’s fling into excitement – she did blame nor hate this baby and took on the responsibility of raising this child and she loved her son so much. I loved Denzel’s resolve to forge ahead in his work – to become a driver instead of just picking up trash. I liked the scenery and I loved the glory of “the Light” when Gabe (Gabriel) blew his trumpet at the end.