Antwone Fisher

By default, movies about real people usually suffer from matters of convenience. Since it’s impossible to accommodate every detail, emotion and event of someone’s life into a two-hour film, they often have to be streamlined or combined to make the final cut.


“Antwone Fisher,” a sensitive, engaging drama about one man’s struggle to come to grips with his abusive past, suffers the same malady, but thanks to a tight, compelling script, passionate direction, and a terrific cast, it’s not fatal.

The script, written by Fisher, is so engaging that we instantly forgive the shorthand when it comes to telling the story of his life. There’s more than enough information on screen to give us a good idea of the pain and suffering faced by Fisher, first as a ward of an abusive foster mother, and then as a young man in the Navy trying to reconcile his past so he can move forward with his future.

Fisher’s tale is given emotional ballast by newcomer Derek Luke, who doesn’t just play Fisher, he becomes Fisher. There isn’t one false note, a perfectly orchestrated performance that fills every frame with honesty and compassion. Sad sob stories are a dime a dozen, but Fisher’s script never shortchanges us. Instead of feeling manipulated, we feel privileged to take this journey of discovery.

When we’re first introduced to Fisher, he’s a sailor in the Navy facing discipline problems. A loner with a short temper, Fisher is facing a court martial unless he agrees to see base psychiatrist Jerome Davenport (Denzel Washington). Resentful, Fisher attends the sessions, but just sits there. After several weeks, Fisher finally begins to open up, slowly relating his past to Davenport, who realizes that the sailor needs more than a couple sessions.

This becomes apparent when Davenport is forced to end the sessions, causing a violent reaction in Fisher that demands more attention. Through flashbacks, we begin to piece together the events that contributed to the man sitting in front of Davenport. Father shot to death before he was born in prison to a mother who abandoned him at birth. Raised in a foster home by a monster of a woman who made Joan Crawford look like mother of the year.

Not only is Fisher’s emotional baggage weighing him down on the job, but in his personal life as well. He really wants to connect with lovely sailor Cheryl (Joy Bryant), but his past keeps getting in the way. Davenport admits that the only way Fisher can move forward is to confront his past and either accept it or get over it.

Luke is so arresting as Fisher that even in his darkest moments we still want to embrace him. Like Washington’s Davenport, we see a decent man trapped underneath a lifetime of guilt and anger, and we want to be there and hold his hand as he takes that journey of self discovery.

I have seen numerous films dealing with the similar themes, but Washington makes every moment seem important and vital. It would have been so easy to turn all of this into melodrama, but Washington skillfully avoids pathos. Instead, he evokes a purity in every performance that makes “Antwone Fisher” seem real to us.

That means the horrors that Fisher faced as a child become our horrors, and Washington succeeds in making us feel uncomfortable. Novella Nelson is frightening as foster mother Mrs. Tate, who treats her three wards worse than a dog. Instead of calling them by name, she calls them by the “N” word, each child knowing who she means by the inflection in her voice.

We also get to share Fisher’s breakthroughs and happy moments, which combine to create a complex, human story filled with hope and triumph. Fisher’s dreams of celebrating Thanksgiving with a family become reality in not one but two joyous moments that make you feel proud to be part of the experience.

In many ways, “Antwone Fisher” is a real Cinderella story. Not only did the real Fisher escape the clutches of his evil stepmother and wicked stepsister to become a prince, but the way his story made it to the big screen is the stuff of fairytales. As a longtime security guard at Sony studios, Fisher befriended and related his story to a producer, who hooked him up with Washington, who was looking for a first project to direct.

Thank goodness fate was at play, because both in front of and behind the camera Washington does the film justice. Washington is excellent as the psychiatrist who becomes a stand-in father figure to Fisher. Ironically, Davenport is desperately in need of a surrogate son, and gets one in Fisher, whose presence helps reinvigorate Davenport’s flat marriage.

As director, Washington brings out the best in his cast and crew. It’s not just a matter of knowing where to put the camera, but being able to capture moments that resonate with truth and honesty. Washington accomplishes both.

SURVIVAL SKILLS

Antwone Fisher enlists great writing, directing, acting

ANTWONE FISHER

Derek Ross, Denzel Washington, Joy Bryant, Salli Richardson, Novella Nelson. Directed by Denzel Washington. Rated PG-13. 113 Minutes.

LARSEN RATING: $7.00



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