Dr. Davenport: “Where you from, Fisher?”
Antwone Fisher: “From under a rock.”
“Everybody was touched by this kid’s story,” Denzel Washington tells the New York Times (3 November 2002). Indeed, Antwone Fisher’s story — a young black man beating unspeakable odds — is all about touching and being touched, brimming with unspeakable tragedy, triumph over adversity. And, given Washington’s well-known commitment to individual integrity and collective uplift, this story is an unsurprising choice for his directorial debut. All this adds up to stakes that appear to be very personal. This both despite and because said stakes are framed in the film and the press in public ways: for the real life Fisher (who has revised the script into a memoir, Finding Fish), for Washington, for plucked-from-the-Sony-gift-shop star Derek Luke.
Antwone Fisher begins with a dream scene. A little boy stands in a sunlit field, birds chirping, thunder threatening in the far-off distance. The camera pans to him, then hovers over him: the boy’s alone. At that moment, a huge white barn door slides open, looming over the little boy, and then a man gestures him inside, smiling. The boy smiles back, he sees before him a crowd of people — family, ideal and abstract — welcoming him to a table laid with scrumptious, heaping dishes. Thrilled and amazed, the boy sits before a plate piled high with pancakes and butter.
Boom: in a sweat, Antwone (Luke) awakens to the sound of a Navy ship’s whistle; in the head, he’s approached by a white seaman, taunting him, “What’s that on your face?” Antwone launches himself at the other seaman. Fisher’s sent to the psych ward, assigned to three sessions with Dr. Jerome Davenport (Washington). Antwone’s been here before, to see another doctor, and he’s indignant: “Just ’cause I jumped on a white boy, something must be wrong with me?” The good doctor knows something about this story. When Antwone refuses to talk, he’s okay with that too. Eventually, he’ll talk. He has to. He’s got a story that will touch everyone.
This story is, as such stories tend to be, both terrible and inspirational. Born in the Ohio State Correctional Facility to a drug-addicted mother, his father murdered months before he’s born, the child is given over to the state, then raised (in the film) by a foster mother, Mrs. Tate (Novella Nelson). She’s as dreadful a bad matriarch as ever appeared on screen. She calls all her foster children “niggers,” beats them with a wet towel, and tortures six-year-old Antwone (Malcolm David Kelley) with fire. Worse, when he’s left alone with babysitter Nadine (Yolonda Ross), she insists that little Twoney give her some “sugar” and “drop ’em” in the basement, the abuse represented by a slow zoom on the basement window from the outside, the boy running from the house, door slamming behind him, his tiny, bony chest heaving as he hauls ass to his best friend’s house down the street.
It’s only when he turns 14 (and is played, for a minute, by Corey Hodges) that Antwone can stand up to Mrs. Tate: “Why do you always need to make things difficult for me?” When she tries to beat him for using such “fancy” words, he stops her, but doesn’t hit her back. Instead, he repeatedly takes out his righteous rage against the men on his ship. Each fight lands him back in the doctor’s vicinity and steers him to another disclosure, some dark secret — cruelty, abandonment, violence — from long ago.
This pattern grants the film an unnecessarily schematic structure, reducing the real complexity of Antwone’s journeys. Here, it looks like narrating his history and then finding his family in Cleveland lead neatly to the seaman’s “cure,” his maturity, his sense of identity. Aside from revealing Antwone’s journey, this intercutting between his memories and his visits with Davenport (in the office, at the doctor’s home, in the ship’s latrine) leads to some minor revelation of the doctor’s own familial troubles, in particular with his wife Berta (Salli Richardson). The doctor becomes a father figure for Antwone, though he also remains strangely locked inside himself, stiff like an officer, reticent about his own past.
Indeed, Thanksgiving at the Davenports turns out to be something of a disaster, with Jerome’s family acting out in observably habitual ways. Maybe an assembly of relations isn’t such a good thing. Yet, the movie only pauses on this moment, and in fact, uses it as a way to underline the importance of recovering and forgiving families. (Or even better, making the masculine embrace of the Navy your new family.)
At the same time, Antwone begins a relationship with a fellow sailor he spots working at the bookstore on base, Cheryl (Joy Bryant). Unstintingly supportive, daughter of a Vietnam War veteran, and perfectly pretty, she models trust and well-being, and for all the weight the character has to carry, Bryant’s unadorned performance provides Antwone Fisher with a kind of emotional subtlety that its plot tends to overwhelm. The young couple’s scenes together are among the most touching here, precisely because their representation of this “healing” process is small-scale: they drink frapuccinos together, they go out to dinner and he makes faces at her salad, she smiles. More often than not, the film suffers from a surfeit of significance, as Antwone realizes a truth or makes a connection, and the music soars.
One disturbing truth is the inexplicable malevolence visited upon this boy — by his foster mother, his babysitter, and his birth mother, Eva (Viola Davis), whom he finally tracks down. Gazing up at her project window from the street below, he asks his newly found Uncle James (Earl Billings), “You’re not going to let anything happen to me, are you?” The question appears to startle James, but then, he hasn’t seen the build-up to it, the scenes detailing the fear that Antwone feels regarding his awful “mothers.” Her story remains wholly unspoken — she literally can’t say a word once he starts telling her how strong and good he is, in spite of her terrible neglect. While Viola Davis’ remarkable face and restrained performance in these three minutes let you in on some of Eva’s own anguish, the film maintains its direct line, from Antwone’s telling to his healing. No distractions.
This single-mindedness can feel limited; there’s obviously more to Antwone’s story than the scenes in which he appears (or even the flashback shown a few times, his father’s murder by an angry ex-girlfriend with a shotgun), concerning, for instance, Berta Davenport (whose brief perusal of some “happy days” snapshots hints at a resonant, recent history with Jerome). Antwone’s story does touch everyone, but Antwone Fisher doesn’t show how.