Tis the season of actor-cum-directors, what with George Clooney sheparding Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Nicholas Cage helming Sonny. Not to be outdone, Denzel Washington is behind the lensing of Antwone Fisher.
Antwone Fisher, as a directing debut is not as daring as Dangerous Mind, but rather, it is a lovingly crafted “message film” about a disturbed young man who cannot move forward until he has made peace with his troubled past. With the notable exception of Training Day (for which he won a 2002 Academy Award), Washington is most well known for his capacity to portray even the most provocative subjects, from Malcolm X to Ruben “Hurricane” Carter, with balance and bearing. He is able to imbue even the most self-inured characters (such as Memphis Bleek in Spike Lee’s Mo Better Blues) with nobility.
In Antwone, Washington the actor steps aside, playing a significant but peripheral role in the story of Antwone Fisher. As his shrink and naval superior, Washington resists acting as a father figure or surrogate and offers center stage to his discovery, Derek Luke. Just as America Ferrera left a striking impression late last year in her feature film debut, Real Women Have Curves, Luke’s performance marks him a force to be reckoned with. As Antwone, Luke captures rage and frustration and finally, vindication. While the story of real life Antwone Fisher, a former Sony security guard turned screenwriter, would seem to be intriguing source material, Luke defies the script, which is otherwise heavy-handed, to add subtle shadings to his portrayal of an adolescent at risk, who against all odds, has survived. His Antwone is perpetually set on simmer, with a rage from unresolved childhood traumas set to boil over from the slightest distress. While altercations with fellow sailors have brought him to the edge of dismissal, these trespasses have also allowed him one final chance: three sessions with Navy psychiatrist Jerome Davenport.
In recent years the doctor-patient relationship has become all too fertile ground in both TV (The Sopranos) and mainstream film (Analyze This). Antwone treads carefully. Davenport assigns his patient John W. Blassingame’s study, The Slave Community, to better understand the patterns of abuse among former slaves. But history explains and doesn’t excuse–the film doesn’t let Antwone’s opprobrious foster family off the hook as it explores Antwone’s fraught childhood. It is also self-critical of a therapeutic program that only offers three chances at success.
Washington has chosen Antwone not merely as the autobiographical tale of one Antwone Fisher, but as a vehicle to contextualize the pathology of young African-American men. But the film paints with more than a broad brush – Washington’s used a roller to cover up all of the narrative holes and gaps and re-shaped a life so that it resembles a modern fairy tale.
But there is a moment of verisimilitude. After canvassing the whole of Cleveland, Atwone finally reunites with his birth mother. With a few disinterred words of profound remorse, Viola Davis strips away what feels vaguely like a two-hour recruitment spot for the Navy and imbues the scene with austerity and dead-eyed angst. Davis’s silences are harrowing; they completely obliterate Antwone Fisher’s moralizing.
Perhaps afraid of losing his audience after so desolate an outcome, Washington then takes us to an ad-hoc family reunion with what seems to be hundreds of relatives. One would have to have a heart of coal to resist the climax of the film, yet it is not honestly earned. What might have been acceptable as a waking dream becomes more surreal than Clooney’s efforts, but unintentionally so. The Antwone Fisher screenplay takes a page from Spielberg and offers melodrama as denouement. Thematically, Antwone falls somewhere between An Officer and a Gentleman and last year’s fine The Sleepy Time Gal – Martha Plimpton’s search for birth mother Jacqueline Bisset. But by making literal the fantasy of finding one’s place in history–one’s heritage–Antwone Fisher ceases to be about a man, it is an allegory.
Denzel’s own subplot exists barely as two passing exchanges. Only as a coda does Dr. Davenport reveal that he and his wife have been grappling with their inability to conceive a child. Jettisoning this story constrains Antwone to a very simplistic plane. As Denzel’s wife Bertha, Salli Richardson does the best work possible, given that she has scarcely more lines than an extra.
Antwone Fisher has moments that are inspiring. Sadly, the dramatic licenses taken undermine the authenticity of the endeavor. What could have been heartfelt feels contrived and manipulative. Despite this, Denzel knows how to choose his material well and how to direct his actors. Perhaps in future projects he will trust his instincts and focus on the story first and agenda second.
– Jerry Weinstein