Antwone Fisher (2002) / Drama
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for violence and language
Running Time: 120 min.
Cast: Derek Luke, Denzel Washington, Joy Bryant, Salli Richardson, Earl Billings
Director: Denzel Washington
Screenplay: Antwone Fisher
The real Antwone Fisher was a security guard for a major Hollywood studio that decided to write a screenplay about his own life, dealing with the ills of the past and overcoming the obstacles that try to bring you down. His story is moving, although being a novice without any experience or even a college degree was still a hindrance in shopping the script idea around. After many drafts and redrafts, it took Fisher over 4 years of working and honing the screenplay to finally complete it, and after the story caught the eye of Denzel Washington, looking to break into the directorial field, the rest is cinematic history. The story of how Antwone Fisher became a screenwriter is probably just as compelling as that told within the context of the screenplay itself, but that's another story altogether.
Of course, just as appealing might be the story of Denzel's push for the film, and how Derek Luke (Pieces of April, Biker Boyz), who plays Antwone, became Denzel's choice to be the star of one of the major Hollywood releases of 2002. In both cases, they are impressive, and it's a true testament that there is quite a bit of untapped talent out there when a first-time director can cast a first-time motion picture actor making a screenplay by a first-time screenwriter, and maintain the quality of vision that it does. In each respective case, it would be hard to imagine someone doing a better job with the same story, because it appears that they all dug down deep within themselves and gave the film everything they had. There isn't a person in the film that can be said to sleepwalk through the film, and judging by the performances, they were all moved and emotionally tied into the story as well.
Antwone Fisher is the story of a sailor in the Navy who has obvious emotional problems that finally come to a head when he ends up punching a fellow sailor in a rage. He is ordered by the commanding officer for a psychiatric evaluation to see whether or not he should stay in the Navy or be given his walking papers. He has only three sessions to prove his worth, but Antwone has no real desire to prove anything to anyone, and after refusing to participate with his first Navy shrink, he lands in the lap of Jerome Davenport (Denzel Washington, John Q) who refuses to let him out of things until he finds out what is wrong. Eventually Fisher's resistance erodes, and he begins to open up to the doctor, telling the tale of his murdered father, incarcerated mother, and how he suffered abuse at the hands of the foster parents he moved in with. Davenport is moved by the story, but one thing becomes clear. Fisher must confront the past that has ailed him once and for all so that he can become finally become whole and be able to move on with life.
Although the respective debuts of Washington, Fisher, and Luke are all impressive, it is Luke's performance that is the closest to perfection. Without such an honest and multi-dimensional performance, Antwone FIsher would have been just another drama. I suppose credit for Luke's performance should also go to Washington, as it appears obvious that the great actor must have played a large role in coaching the performers to deliver very realistic reactions. Although each actor is clearly talented enough to do a decent job, it's the little touches that give the characters dimension, and no one understands this better than Denzel. There's a lot of Denzel in everyone's performance.
The reason that I don't ascribe the same perfection for Washington as director and Fisher as screenwriter comes from their emotional attachment to the story. This is a sentimental tale, but as written and directed here, perhaps a little too sentimental for the material at times. Clearly there is much that is moving to the story, and when the situation is appropriate, the tears that you feel welling up are honest and earned. Yet, not everything should have been on that same level, as there comes a time when the head has to take the lead instead of the heart, but during those moments, it seems the heart still prevailed. That's not an altogether bad thing, but with a little more philosophical strength, each point would have been driven home more profundity.
Also, the other area of weakness comes with the handling of the child actors, especially of young Antwone. As good as Washington appears to be in handling the adult actors and their mannerisms, the child players come off as too robotic and without any real personality. They don't appear to have genuine emotion, looking like they were given verbal cues to dance, smile or look afraid instead of appearing like they really were feeling these things.
Still, as soggy as the film sometimes can get, for the most part, it's smooth sailing. The romance is refreshingly handled, as is the problematic relationship Davenport has with his own wife (Richardson, The Great White Hype). There is so much subtlety to each performance, that even players without much speaking part has character development just by their silent gazes.
Antwone Fisher is an inspiring story that should probably please everyone who isn't a total curmudgeon when it comes to emotional filmmaking. It should really hit home with younger African Americans who grew up in a similar environment, and will also inspire children who grew up in foster homes or adopted families that still haven't sought out their natural birth parents.
Antwone Fisher is about a man who has trouble being a man because he can't stand strong. He can't stand strong because of the weight that was placed on him growing up in an environment where everyone told him he was worthless. Eventually, Antwone is able to grow and flourish, because like any tree that stands tall and strong, he finds that he has roots, and they run very deep.
©2002 Vince Leo