Antwone Fisher (2002)

“I wasn’t concerned with whether or not the audience liked Antwone at first. In fact, I didn’t have a problem with them not liking him. Because they would come to find out why he’s the way he is, and they could take that journey with him.” Denzel Washington’s assessment of an early scene in Antwone Fisher indicates the sorts of chances he takes with his directorial debut. As he suggests on the Fox DVD commentary track (which takes the form of a conversation and reminiscence with producer Todd Black), he was interested in pushing viewers to think about their reactions to his protagonist, an angry young black man who, in his first scene, assaults a white fellow sailor.

This story, based on the real Fisher’s grueling autobiography, Finding Fish, traces his triumph over extreme adversity, specifically a childhood of unspeakable abuse. Given Washington’s well-known commitment to individual integrity and collective uplift, the story seems an inspired choice for his first effort at directing. And as he also plays Antwone’s kindly, wise, and personally troubled (and fictional) Navy psychiatrist, he’s able to make a more complex story than the usual uplift from tragedy, in that the two men help one another. Moreover, their investigations into Antwone’s past lead to difficult reflections on cultural and familial dysfunctions.

Washington’s Antwone Fisher begins with a dream scene (one that he recalls on he DVD, almost didn’t make the final cut). 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 (Derek 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. In order to decide whether he’s suited for the Navy, Fisher’s 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, because that is the film’s generic bent.

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 (played for one scene 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 with a shoe for using such “fancy” words, he stops her and takes the shoe, but doesn’t hit her back. Still, the doctor notes as the film cuts back to his office, “It felt pretty good to take that shoe from her.” It did, but it was part of Antwone’s self-destructive pattern: unable to fight back against his actual oppressor, he would grow up take 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 various 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 (as the Navy becomes his “first real home,” as Fisher describes it in the DVD’s “Meeting Antwone Fisher” featurette), 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 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 always show how. Still, the film traces an incredible journey, and, as Washington says, “We touch on issues that have sort of been kept quiet or in the closet, or stay within the home. And that’s one reason why Antwone wanted his story told, to speak out to all those others who might be in hiding or struggling with it, that they can also survive.”