Antwone Fisher

"I'm still standing! I'm still strong!"

Antwone Fisher is the illustration of an interesting concept: what happens when someone decides to adapt his own life story for the screen? There is a vital difference between a literary memoir and a script: whereas prose allows for considerable flexibility in style and structure, a movie, especially one that purports to be a Hollywood crowdpleaser, places considerable restrictions on writer’s ability to maneuver, with many more audience considerations to fret about. It isn’t surprising that, under the presumably watchful eye of Denzel Washington and Fox Searchlight Pictures, Antwone Fisher has crafted a dull, straight-forward autobiopic, devoid of nuance, idiosyncrasy and character.

This is exactly the kind of movie you’d expect Denzel Washington to make as his directorial debut. It’s full of righteous indignation, and Big Speeches, and inspirational messages. Watching Antwone Fisher, you might experience nostalgia for Training Day, the last movie to prove that Denzel doesn’t have to be Sidney Poitier to be a terrific thesp. Don’t get me wrong: his performance here is certainly serviceable, and the only reason it isn’t more is that the script doesn’t allow it to be.

The film begins with a dream sequence followed by a violent outburst, as the title character (Derek Luke), a petty officer in the navy, ruthlessly assaults a white shipmate on the allegation of a racial slur. His superiors send him to the navy psychiatrist, Dr. J. Davenport (Washington), a perceptive man who immediately senses that something is not right and when Antwone refuses to talk to him, he makes him sit on the couch until his patience runs thin.

When Antwone does start to talk, his story comes pouring out of his mouth and onto the screen. His father was murdered before he was born. His last contact with his mother was when he was two months old, given up to orphanages and foster families on the grounds of her being in prison. His foster mother, Mrs. Tate (played in flashbacks by Novella Nelson), was a sadistic (black) woman who called all of her foster children “nigger” (though with different intonations for each) and treated the one who was half-white as the example for the other two. She beat the kids at will.

Antwone has a girl who likes him, also a navy officer. He is too insecure to go after her, and the source of his insecurity is revealed as a surprise halfway through the movie, though you may be able to guess what it is. As he opens up to Dr. Davenport, he begins to depend on him, and is devastated when told that their three sessions together are coming to an end.

Antwone Fisher is painfully straightforward, which would be okay but for the fact that it isn’t really interesting either. Everything is spelled out, with some scenes playing approximately like this:

Everything is spelled out; nothing is left to the imagination. Washington and Fisher aren’t interested in entertaining us, they want to teach us about courage, and integrity, and perseverance, and resilience. It’s possible to make a great film about those themes — Philip Noyce, in fact, has done exactly that with his Rabbit-Proof Fence — but not by hanging them across the screen like laundry.

Washington has wisely surrounded himself and his neophyte leading man with a superlative supporting cast, led by the astonishing Novella Nelson, who makes her character both terrifying and oddly sympathetic. If this wasn’t patently a true story, though, I would have labeled her flashback sequences a repulsively over-the-top horror show, as Antwone is wronged and violated in just about every way imaginable.

The predominant tone of Antwone Fisher is one of great respect and admiration towards is subject. Having seen it, I also feel great respect and admiration for Antwone, who is surely a remarkable man who has been through a lot and come out on top. I wish, however, that they had let someone else bring his story to the screen.

-- Eugene Novikov

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