By Rachel Deahl
The evolution of Antwone Fisher from serendipitously noticed minor novel to major movie, with full-page ads, sounds like a canned Hollywood fairytale. Inspired by a memoir called Finding Fish, the book first caught the eye of a security guard at Sony Pictures some 10 years ago. Said security guard went on to become the producer Todd Black, who has cultivated the project from the ground up, helping the book’s author, Antwone Fisher himself, pen the screenplay and seeing the script into production. The turning point came when Black sent the script to Denzel Washington who, after reading it, agreed to star in the picture on the condition that he could also direct. The result is a sentimental, simplistic yarn about a troubled young black man who is trying to come to terms with his past. And while Washington doesn’t show much deftness, or originality, with camerawork in his debut effort, he does prove to be a talented director of actors, eliciting an exceptional performance from newcomer Derek Luke.
Luke stars as the titular young naval cadet who is prone to violent outbursts, often attacking his shipmates with an unwelcome punch to the face. When he is sent to see an in-house psychiatrist (Washington) to deal with his discipline problems, it’s apparent from the first session that Fisher’s troubles can be traced back to his childhood. The sailor defiantly answers the question of where he comes from by saying, “Under a rock,” and Washington’s doc is quickly tipped off to the fact that there might have been some unhappiness in the home. Initially refusing to take part in therapy, Fisher finally opens up and the floodgates part, as the youngster sheds light on his mother (who gave birth to him in prison), his father (who was shot by an ex-girlfriend shortly after he was born) and his abusive foster family.
Only partially sidestepping the idiotic Hollywood version of psychoanalysis, in which one tough session with Dr. Freud cures all your head problems, Antwone Fisher presents a quick fix by sending its hero off to find his “real” family. Compelled to behave after forging a familial bond with his doc and getting a girlfriend (Joy Bryant), Fisher sets out to locate his kin. Here the film veers, if only slightly, from its Good Will Hunting template, in which the doctor-cum-father exorcises the psychological demons of the past. Although Antwone Fisher rightly avoids the doctor as savior motif it does, nonetheless, cross much of the same irksome ground as the Matt Damon-Ben Affleck hit. Like that film, Antwone Fisher is about getting to the bottom of a deep, dark secret of sexual abuse and fixing it, seemingly, by the reassertion of heterosexuality. Recalling all the chest thumping between Matt Damon and Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting, which culminates in Damon’s homophobic blue collar prodigy being convinced that hugging his male doctor doesn’t make him gay, Fisher is reassured of his own masculinity (and therefore needs to punch fewer guys in the face) once he loses his virginity. While both films gray the line between displaying homophobia and endorsing it, Fisher is finally on shakier ground in this arena.
Despite Luke’s groundbreaking turn as the needy, sensitive, and volatile Fisher, Washington’s film is splintered and predictable. Tacking on an ineffective subplot in which the doc’s own marriage is in shambles over his wife’s inability to have a baby, the storyline leads inexorably to that final tired comment about how the doctor is the one who was actually healed by his patient. Failing to focus on the cultural significances of its hero’s predicament, the film ultimately glosses over the racial issues at hand. That Fisher begins the film as an angry and defiant young black man who is all-too-aware of white society’s oppressive disdain for men like him, and ends it as a tame, well-rounded naval graduate, might even be seen as a regression. At a seminal moment in the film, Fisher describes himself as a good black man stating he has, among other things, never fathered any children, taken drugs, had a drop of alcohol, or committed a crime. The statement makes Fisher sound like the perfect, and safe, African-American male, as devised by the white power structure. By casting its title character in a perfectionist light, Antwone Fisher ultimately comes off as more of a construct than a dynamic human being, making it difficult for the audience to be moved by his triumphant life story.