***** (out of 5)
December 25, 2002
Derek Luke as ANTWONE FISHER
Joy Bryant as CHERYL SMOLLEY
Denzel Washington as JEROME DAVENPORT
Salli Richardson as BERTA DAVENPORT
Directed by: Denzel Washington
BY KEVIN CARR
“Antwone Fisher” begins as many films by actors-turned-directors do: A majestic sweeping shot. Visually stunning imagery that suggests the director of photography ran roughshod over the newby director. We open with a dream sequence as young Antwone Fisher (played at age 6 by a commendable Cory Hodges) makes his way across a wheat field to a barn where his family is waiting for him. They sit down to a heartwarming pancake dinner until…
Antwone Fisher, now a 22-year-old (Derek Luke) wakes up with a start, back in reality as a Naval seaman on a battleship in a California harbor. We quickly discover that Fisher has some serious anger management problems. He routinely picks fights with other crew members over apparently mundane things. Things are so bad for the seaman that he receives several demotions, is put on restriction and is ordered to receive counseling.
The counselor assigned to Fisher is Jerome Davenport, played by director Denzel Washington. After a great deal of perseverance and gnashing of teeth, Fisher starts to open up to Davenport, giving the audience a look into what could have caused all this internal rage.
The causes are severe – father murdered before he was born (in a woman’s prison, no less), abandonment by his mother, physical and sexual abuse as a child; living on the street, etc., etc., etc.
“Antwone Fisher” is a story of a young man trying to find his past – and a childhood that was stolen from him. After being cast off by everyone he has ever known, Fisher is struggling to come to terms with his past – and with his current authority figures.
Washington is to be commended for keeping the story real and not falling into the pitfalls and traps of victimization subject to many a first-time black director (with the exception of one scene where Davenport gives Fisher a book explaining that abuse in black families is a result of how their ancestors were treated as slaves). In the big pictures, Antwone Fisher’s problems are his own.
That is not to say that segregation, slavery and other racial issues have not had an impact on Antwone Fisher’s life – no more than racial and social issues have had an impact on my Irish ancestors dying of alcohol and starvation. At least Washington makes a point to say (actually saying it himself as the character of Davenport) that people’s decisions are their own.
What is most noble about “Antwone Fisher” is that the character learns to come to grips with his life without blaming the world. Racial woes are abandoned early in this film, leaving the characters to work out their problems without scapegoats. In fact, the strength of Antwone Fisher’s character is in the fact that he flat out refuses to be a victim, even in confronting the families that abandoned and betrayed him over the years.
The film is based on the true life story of Antwone Fisher, who also wrote the screenplay. At the end of the film, there is a disclaimer about this being a fictionalized account of his life and not direct fact. Of course, this begs the question about how real was the story. Was the abuse really this bad? Was Antwone Fisher really as noble as he appears in the film.
I suspect that the real Antwone Fisher is like most of us – he has some bad days, but he has some good days. It is always our struggle to try to make those good days outnumber the bad. Sometimes we succeed. Sometimes we don’t.
However, looking past the “based on a true story” tagline, the film “Antwone Fisher” is a very powerful drama that doesn’t just tug at the heartstrings, but yanks them hard. It will make you thankful for whatever dysfunctional family struggles you have because at least you know you have a family to struggle with.
Additionally, the character arc of Antwone Fisher is very well laid out. In fact, at the beginning of the film, it is difficult to like him. He’s brash, obnoxious, and generally a pain in the butt. However, as we learn more and more about him, we find ourselves growing more fond of young Mr. Fisher.
Denzel Washington’s first foray into directing is excellent. Let’s just keep our fingers crossed that this may continue. Remember that Kevin Costner won an Academy Award for his directorial debut. Generally, well respected actors that dive into directing are often given personally moving projects to start out, and their crew covers many of their mistakes. However, once established as a director, anyone is capable of making “The Postman.”