Denzel Washington’s directorial debut “Antwone Fisher” is a meal cooked using the standard ingredients for a tear-jerker. It’s enjoyable, warm-hearted, and constructed well enough to satisfy the average movie-goer, and will definitely pull you in if you’re a sucker for inspirational dramas.
I was cautious upon entering the theater, because I knew what I was in for. “Antwone Fisher” would be a movie about a struggling boy who has to find the courage to triumph over a physical and an emotional obstacle. So, what I expected is what I got. But there is more to it. To dismiss this movie because of what I just described would not do justice to what it has to offer through powerful emotions and strong relationships. And maybe because it was written by the real Antwone Fisher, there is more of a desire to see this movie about stuff we have seen before.
Antwone Fisher (Derek Luke) is a low-ranking Navy officer, currently serving on an aircraft carrier off the Pacific coast. But before the theater lights have the chance to completely dim, Fisher throws a punch at a provoking crew mate that nearly gets him kicked out of the Navy. He is immediately demoted to seaman and sent to counseling. This is the movie’s gentle way of showing us that Antwone is not stable, and that he will need a recommendation from a psychiatrist before continuing his Navy tour. Antwone is referred to Dr. Jerome Davenport (Denzel Washington), where they undergo weekly sessions together, some more successful than others.
The first encounter between Fisher and Dr. Davenport, as you may have already guessed, doesn’t work out so well. Fisher is stubborn, and doesn’t realize that his attitude is a problem. He refuses to speak, and only begins to tell his life story when he is told that he must attend three weekly sessions, and they will begin only when he begins to talk. As Fisher opens up, his relationship with Davenport flourishes, and he begins to look forward to his weekly appointment. While being treated, he meets the charming and likable Cheryl (Joy Bryant), his soon-to-be girlfriend. She is Fisher’s emotional crutch, although he does not tell her right away that he is in therapy.
This is how we learn the traits and qualities of the characters. Not by straight dialogue, but by their habits (being afraid of women) and their actions (getting into fights). A lot of the time we are guessing and trying to figure out certain niches in the story and wondering why the characters behave the way they do. Why is Dr. Davenport’s wife unhappy whenever we see her? Why is Fisher afraid to get into relationships? We have to pay attention because some of those answers don’t come until later on, which helps us stay engaged.
Many of these questions are answered in a scene that takes place before the present, as not everything in the movie is shown in chronological order. This technique is not the same thing as seeing a flashback, when a character remembers something that happened before, because not everything we see from the past was actually seen by Fisher. In this case, the scenes from the past are pieces that fit the puzzle. Some of the pieces come from dreams, while others stem from pure imagination. The film does correctly go back and forth between the present and past. First you hear, “I just see cowbells,” and then you see why the cowbells are significant. This style is effective; the traditional ‘from beginning to end’ approach would have been boring.
Everything that happened during Fisher’s childhood was painful. His father died before he was born, and his mother was a convict who gave birth in the state prison. His foster parents were cruel and unforgiving. His stepmother would beat Fisher and his two stepbrothers for everything wrong they did. His baby-sitter was sexually abusive, which leads to emotional trauma that haunts him through most of his young-adult years.
The painful memories of Fisher’s life will soon be rehashed after being told by Dr. Davenport to go back to Cleveland and find his real family. This is the turning point of the plot, and it does take a long time for this part of the story to take place. Davenport believes that Fisher’s life will only be complete once he learns more about his past, which will ultimately teach him more about himself.
As a first-time director, Denzel Washington flexes surprisingly large muscles as the man behind the camera. The cinematography is masterful, from the opening sequence displaying a young Antwone standing alone in a wide field, to the nightmarish kitchen where an evil stepmother wets her towel. The execution of these scenes is not what you’d expect from a rookie director. Then again, it doesn’t hurt to have Philippe Rousselot as your director of photography. He’s done the photography in other Washington movies as well, such as “Remember the Titans.”
There is a lot of focus on detail. The camera often pans the tips of grass and the soles of shoes. There is also an effective fade as if the movie was a stage play. In one sequence, the background completely fades to black, a segue you don’t see a lot of on the silver screen.
The performances are good and the acting is convincing. The unknowns Derek Luke and Joy Bryant have a good chemistry together that you can’t help but adore. Washington continues to play the role of authority, although he is nowhere near the intensity level that he was in “Remember The Titans” and “Training Day.”
The movie does get violent at some points, and it may be too extreme for young viewers. The part where we are introduced to the sexually abusive baby-sitter is intense and comes on strong. The step-mom uses the N-word a lot, setting a theme of one-colored racism that also contributed to the PG-13 rating.
“Antwone Fisher” isn’t the most original movie of the year, and it does beg for a reaction that you ultimately will give in to. Regardless, there is more substance than fluff. You will feel good when it’s over, a feeling we all appreciate. There are movies like “Titanic” that make audiences cry because of sadness, “Antwone Fisher” makes audiences cry because of happiness. There is a lot of darkness and depression in this movie, which in result amplifies the scenes of joy. You may leave the theater without Oscar hopes for “Antwone Fisher,” but if you have wadded tissues in your hand, there’s nothing wrong with that.