Antwone Fisher

January, 2003, Drama

This directorial debut by Denzel Washington may not display the visual flair and wicked sense of humor found in George Clooney's first effort behind the camera, ("Confessions of a Dangerous Mind"), but Washington demonstrates a commendable ability to tell a story in a strong, straight-forward manner. If his material is less challenging than Clooney's, it's nonetheless crisply and effectively delivered. 

The script, a first effort developed by Mr. Fisher from his own autobiography, found its way into Washington's hands while the author was acting as a security guard at Sony Pictures; to complete a cinematic hat-trick, the director chose newcomer Derek Luke to play the lead in this story of a troubled young Navy enlisted man who finds himself in the process of discovering his family.

Luke is immediately credible as Fisher, a moody seaman whose penchant for violent outbursts gets him both demoted and sent to therapy sessions with Washington. He plays Dr. Jerome Davenport, a career Naval psychiatrist, who discerns a frightened vulnerability behind Fisher's sullen, insolent behavior. With a combination of patience, listening skills and the imperative of military authority, Davenport challenges Fisher to examine a past he has painful reasons to hide. Fisher, whose father was murdered while his mother was pregnant with him, grew up without a family; his mother never claimed him upon her release from prison, and he was consequently placed in a foster care environment both frightening and destructive. As Fisher slowly reveals his chaotic past to Davenport, the psychiatrist persuades the reluctant young man to seek release from the self-imposed demons of his childhood by going home and trying to locate his family, especially the mother who abandoned him. With the help of his girlfriend, (charmingly portrayed by Joy Bryant, another newcomer) Fisher confronts his mother and then finds joyous acceptance from an unexpected source. 

Washington's role behind the camera is more important than his job in front of it; this is Fisher's story, and the director/star has the sense to realize it. There's nothing flashy or hyper-kinetic in the film's visual style, and that no-nonsense, direct approach works perfectly to convey the growing confidence Fisher finds in himself under the tutelage of his caring mentor. The violent treatment meted out to Fisher as a youngster gets handled with a restraint which makes its presentation all the more effective. Luke's performance is remarkably sophisticated for a debut; he delivers a Fisher both likable and sympathetic without ever shying away from the price his character has paid for the circumstances of his past. The movie rests squarely on his sholders and the fit's perfect. 

If a comparison can be made to another initial directorial effort, it might well be Robert Redford's "Ordinary People", a similar compact tale which relied on the solid delivery of a straight forward story involving the price to be paid for suppressing the past and the healing which can come from proper confrontation with it. If "Antwone" breaks no new ground, it compellingly presents  individual transformation with power and tact, and treats the issue of race as precisely the irrelevant factor it is. With a pair of family scenes that `form visual bookends to the film's action, this is a movie which infuses real meaning into the oft-used cliché "family values".   

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