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Antwone Fisher
Stars: Denzel Washington, Derek Luke, Joy Bryant, Salli Richardson, Yolanda Ross, Stephen Snedden, De'Angelo Wilson
Director: Denzel Washington
Scriptwriter: Antwone Quenton Fisher (based on his book, "Finding Fish")
Music: Mychael Danna
Fox Searchlight
Running Time: 118 minutes
Rating: PG 13

The entire country will be going to see The Two Towers this week, and why not? It's a fantastic movie, one pretty much the entire family can enjoy. But once you've seen that epic, I hope you'll turn your attention to a much smaller film, a true family movie, in that it's a movie about finding your family.

Antwone Fisher, written by the real-life title character and supposedly based on his life, is about a Navy sailor (played by Derek Luke) who has a temper. In fact, the fistfight that opens the movie is merely the last of several Fisher's been involved in. So he's shipped off to the Navy psychologist, Dr. Jerome Davenport (Denzel Washington, who also directs the movie). At first, their sessions are uneventful, even dull. Antwone refuses to speak about his anger, and Davenport just lets him sit in the chair. But finally, Fisher tells his story, and his tale of childhood abuse is horrifying--a father whom he never met , abandoned by his mother when she was sent to prison, a foster home filled with violence, intimidation, and even sexual abuse. No wonder that Fisher has a problem with his emotions.

As expected, Fisher and Davenport meet every week, and Davenport tries to get Fisher to open up, to deal with the issues of his past. Davenport also encourages him in his romantic endeavors, and soon Antwone is acting on his feelings as he gets to know fellow sailor Joy (Cheryl Smolley), who would certainly be the most beautiful seawoman I've ever seen. This is familiar territory to be sure, and if parts of it feel like they've been lifted right out of Ordinary People (as my friend Garth mentioned), I'd argue that that movie is 20 years old.

What lifts Antwone Fisher out of the mediocre is the quality of the direction and the strong acting from both Washington and his young stars. Denzel Washington, fresh off his Oscar win last spring, chose to try his hand at directing, and it suits him. The restraint and sense of dignity that has characterized his acting over the years transfer smoothly to his directorial style.

At times, though, the movie betrays its directorial inexperience. The situations are a bit much. The foster mother isn't just an insensitive
hypocrite; she's a witch out of a Stephen King horror story. The poem Antwone reads at a Thanksgiving dinner isn't just Hallmark sentimentality; it's painful and mawkish, and Washington insists on having the entire thing read out loud. And the movie's climax around a dinner table seems to feature the entire black community of Cleveland, all of whom come out to clap for our hero.

But Washington is admirably restrained in other areas. For starters, his own character is genuinely secondary. He drops out of the picture just when he's supposed to, letting the attention focus completely on Antwone. So many directors would've inserted some big speech or moment in the sun, but Washington wisely abstains. The dialogue and pace also belie Washington's inexperience. The movie introduces its characters and conflict quickly instead of boring the audience with needless exposition. The relationship between Antwone and Joy is particularly well-handled. Their initial date on the pier is funny and touching, and a tender, passionate kiss later in the film is just about perfect.

It doesn't hurt that Derek Luke (in his film debut) and Joy Bryant (in only her second movie) give heartfelt performances. Luke has a combination of good looks and charm, but he's also a strong actor in the demanding conflict scenes. Bryant doesn't have as much to do, but she provides a nice foil for his development and a beautiful smile, to boot. My friend Garth argued that the movie is misogynist, but I'm not sure where that comes from. Sure, the female characters aren't as well developed as the male ones (nothing new there), but this movie features three strong, sympathetic women: Cheryl, Dr. Davenport's wife, and Antwone's aunt who appears late in the story.

I suspect that Garth's antipathy to the film derives from its wholesome message of uplift. And I'll admit that the movie can be manipulative at times, but it's also a compelling story, one that will resonate with a large number of people. It's a film that wears its emotions on its sleeve, and if it sometimes feels like it was made with Oprah viewers in mind, who cares! It works. I laughed, I cried, I left the theater with a bounce in my step. That it features a story about African Americans and the nature of family, without a lot of swearing and violence, is merely a bonus. I'm not sure you want to take the little kids--the themes of child abuse are not subtle--but this is quality holiday entertainment, and I'd bet Garth a lot of money that the word of mouth on this one's going to be fantastic. Don't let some cynical movie critic fool you. Once you've seen Lord of the Rings, this should be next on your list. 

by J. Robert Parks 12/15/2002


What does the word "abandon" mean to you? Does it mean a piece of furniture by the side of the road or a dog tied to the door of a local humane society? Or, can you go deeper and think of abandoning a baby or a child? Such is the premise of Antwone Fisher, based on the life experiences of Antwone Fisher, a Hollywood scriptwriter. Newcomer Derek Luke portrays Fisher in the film, and Denzel Washington ("Training Day") not only directs his first film but stars as Fisher's navy psychiatrist, too. This is a search for identity, perhaps for both men.

Antwone was born while his mother was in prison. He was taken to social services for his mother to claim when she was released---but she left him there; his father died before he was born. Through the years, he went from an orphanage to foster parents to the streets to enlisting in the navy. Anger was always an issue with him, and after one-too-many fights, he is reduced in rank and told to seek psychiatric counseling. It is there he meets Washington and the process of healing begins. Antwone developed excellent survival techniques in his harrowing childhood.  He must have had a guardian angel helping out, too.

Derek Luke does a striking job of portraying a young man who takes offense at the slightest thing. His social skills are lacking, so when he manages to go on a first date (with Joy Bryant), it is a milestone event. Washington is in the background here and acts as a sounding board to get Antwone motivated for improvement and self-examination. Let's face it; if Washington were in private practice, the line for therapy would go around the block. 

Antwone Fisher is a tale of child abuse; it makes you wonder just what malevolent people walk through society behind a façade of caring. Chills the bones. The Navy is seen as trying to help sailors who are in trouble. However, the script also pulls things together quickly. Derek Luke's character undergoes rapid soul-searching and change almost minute to minute. Washington's home life has its problems; I would like to have seen more of this. The hints given to the audience aren't enough to make an impression, and a two-minute dialogue of explanation isn't enough. The wind-up ending goes so fast that if you blink, you miss it. Antwone Fisher needs a bit more than that. 

As a director, Washington shows style with centering Derek Luke first in a scene, and then himself second. Also, the photography by Phillippe Rousselot is effective in these scenes, too. Washington moves the film along at a good pace, but it's almost too fast to make a serious impression. This is a film that could have had a few more minutes to make a complete story. As a result, Antwone Fisher is a shortcut through a man's story of survival.

Copyright 2002 Marie Asner
Submitted 12/23/02



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