review by Cynthia Fuchs, 20 December 2002
Davenport: "Where you from, Fisher?"
Antwone Fisher: "From under a rock."
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.
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.
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.
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 a** to his best friend's house down the street.
only when he turns fourteen (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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Some material may
be inappropriate for
children under 13.