Fair Fences could have been Better

Spike Lee is a filmmaker who often seems to bring an agenda to the table when he makes a film. He is better than many others at walking that line between agenda and a real story, but it's often easy to listen for that voice in the background.

Good Fences was not directed, written, or even produced by Spike Lee, but it's his production company, 40 Acres and a Mule, that's behind it, and therefore he gets the bill for executive producer.

The movie is supposed to be about the subtle effects of choices black people make when they try to fit into white society. Danny Glover is (Uncle) Tom Spader - if ever a literary reference were thinly masked, this is it. He is an ambitious lawyer who ends up "making it" by a combination of hard work, and kowtowing to the rich and influencial whites in his work. Some of his career decisions are more dubious than others, and his wife, Mabel (Whoopi Goldberg), is left feeling that there is something not right about it, but the individual deculturing steps are small enough that she never objects. As Tom's success increases, they eventually move into a well-to-do white enclave, and Mabel learns to socialize within the antiseptic white culture around her.

When a black lottery winner who isn't interested in shedding her culture moves in next door, the apparent contradictions in their lives come to the surface. Tom finds the new neighbor a disgrace and an embarrassment and even a threat to the neighborhood. Mabel finds herself confronted with real choices about who to side with. Things escalate somewhat predictably until the rather unlikely ending.

The lesson is plain: don't turn your back on your blackness, but I find details to be murky. Are we supposed to believe a black lawyer should not defend a white man charged with killing someone who is black? The real moral question would be over defending someone you knew to be guilty. I feel it was a mistake to cast the central question of the film as a moral one. Culture has as much to do with geography and economics as color, and changes naturally over time as people interact. I don't think the film is proposing segregation - far from it - but the idea of separateness is almost inciting. It would have worked better giving that idea to one, or more, of the characters, and let the conflict in the film give the audience something to talk about afterwards.

Good Fences is adapted from a novel with considerably more material, according to the filmmakers. Assuredly the film would have been improved if more actually happened that didn't leave us with Whoopi looking at Glover like the wayward son, and Glover looking like he'd been hit with a two-by-four. I can't vouch for the novel, but I think the premise here is clever, and had its possibilities squeezed out in the development process somehow.

It's not at all surprising to find Spike Lee behind a project like this one. I wish he were a little more hands-on, though, because he makes better use of his characters to voice a message, but he's certainly not perfect. This film is similar to Lee's Bamboozled in its heavy treatment of its message. Bamboozled was better executed, but Good Fences was a better idea that would have worked better in his hands.

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