Director : Denzel Washington
Screenplay : Antwone Fisher
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2002
Stars : Derek Luke (Antwone Fisher), Denzel Washington (Jerome Davenport), Joy Bryant (Cheryl), Salli Richardson (Berta), Leonard Earl Howze (Pork Chop), Kente Scott (Kansas City), Kevin Connolly (Slim), Rainoldo Gooding (Grayson), Novella Nelson (Mrs. Tate), Malcolm David Kelley (Antwone Fisher Age 7), Cory Hodges (Antwone Fisher Age 14)
Antwone Fisher, which tells the story of a man who survived abuse, neglect, racism, and other horrors, is a generically uplifting movie, filled with the kind of bluntly life-affirming feel-goodness you expect to see on a Sunday-night TV movie. This doesn’t make it bad in any particular way, merely unsurprising. Oscar-winning actor Denzel Washington, in his directorial debut, has crafted a noble, but largely undistinguished work, one that may very well make a lot of people feel warm and fuzzy inside, but is also quickly forgettable.
As is well known by now, Antwone Fisher was written by the man of the name, who turned his life story into a screenplay and, against all odds, sold it to the studio where he was working as a security guard. Quite a few critics have complained that the self-hagiography displayed by Fisher is nothing short of nausea-inducing. And, while I don’t fully share that sentiment, it is hard not to find what Fisher has done somewhat distasteful and self-serving, although how exactly it differs from someone publishing a memoir or an autobiography is not clear unless we take into account the cultural assumption that movies are a more self-serving and, by extension, lower art form than the written word. The fact that there is a movie about a previously unheard-of man named Antwone Fisher called Antwone Fisher that was written by Antwone Fisher might strike some as a bit crude, especially since his story is, despite its uplifting trajectory, quite ordinary.
The story begins when Antwone is in his mid-20s. Portrayed by newcomer Derek Luke, Antwone is a Navy seaman who is sent to counseling because of his anger-management problem. Those who have seen Good Will Hunting (1997) can already see where this is going, as Antwone eventually finds himself coming to grips with his difficult past in the office of a kindly father-figure psychiatrist who has a few dark places in his own life that are eventually enlightened through his experience with this special patient. The psychiatrist is Jerome Davenport (Denzel Washington), whose homelife with his wife is not all it should be. In terms of generic narrative structure, it doesn’t get much more banal than this—the shrink who can heal others but can’t heal himself.
Antwone Fisher follows a general narrative arc of healing, as Antwone explains his terrible past to Jerome and learns how it is still affecting his adult life. Antwone’s father was murdered before he was born, and his mother, after giving birth to him while serving time in prison, never claimed him. After spending some time in an orphanage, he was adopted by a cruel family, the matriarch of which was a deeply disturbed woman named Mrs. Tate (Novella Nelson) who referred to all her foster children as “nigger” and beat them regularly. He was also sexually abused as a child by an older cousin, and when he finally stood up for himself as a teenager he was thrown out of the house. After that, he lived on the street before joining the Navy.
All this comes out in a series of flashbacks, each of which is triggered by Antwone relapsing into some form of violence. The narrative begins to build an obvious pattern where everything will be going well for Antwone, then he will suffer a setback of some kind, which brings Jerome back into his life and leads to his telling yet another dark chapter of his past. The goal is to get them all out on the table so that Antwone knows exactly what he must face and that he must eventually find his true family, if it even still exists.
Again, on its own, this material has an undeniable emotional resonance—watching any character suffer the way Antwone does and come out in the end strong and resilient is moving in and of itself. As a director, Denzel Washington makes sure he hits all the emotional highs, both positive and negative. He’s fairly discreet when the film turns ugly, preferring not to visualize the worst of Antwone’s travails. He knows, however, how to milk triumph for all it’s worth, and one of the final scenes in which Antwone is greeted in a way that he had previously only dreamt of works far better than it probably should.
Yet, there is still the sour aftertaste of the movie’s source and how Antwone Fisher the writer has self-consciously created a cinematic image of himself to show others what a great man he is. In the scene in which he finally finds his mother (heart-breakingly played by Viola Davis), Antwone begins to run off all the reasons why he is good person—he’s never smoked or done drugs, he can speak two languages, he’s read hundreds of books, etc.—and it feels like a speech directed at us. Antwone Fisher, for all its good points, is ultimately one man’s celebration to his own solidarity, which, even in a culture as self-serving as ours, doesn’t feel quite right. At least he could have changed the names.
Copyright © 2003 James Kendrick