- The Washington Times - Friday, December 20, 2002

"Antwone Fisher" may be the first biographical movie in which the subject himself has been encouraged to write the screenplay needed to bring his struggle to the attention of a mass public.

The real Antwone Fisher had spent about a decade in the Navy and taken a job as a security guard at the Sony-Columbia studio in Culver City, Calif., when his life story came to the attention of producer Todd Black. Mr. Black's heartfelt response eventually led to this movie, also a notable professional landmark since it marks Denzel Washington's debut as a director.

Mr. Washington has a principal role, as Navy psychiatrist Jerome Davenport, who encounters Fisher as a problem case, a seaman with a belligerent streak that needs to be governed before it lands him in serious trouble.

Fisher, played by newcomer Derek Luke, is sulky and noncommunicative at the outset. Davenport's patience wears him down. Ultimately, the older man learns about the childhood turmoil that has haunted Fisher into young adulthood.

The audience has somewhat earlier intimations of it, starting with a flashback evocation of the sort of family connections Fisher longs for and appears to find eventually during a pilgrimage to his hometown of Cleveland.

The filmmakers have fictionalized numerous things, including the chronology of the pilgrimage. They place it during Fisher's naval service, when he is stationed at Coronado Island near San Diego. In fact, Mr. Fisher didn't sort out his troubled past until he had left the Navy and consulted with quite a few psychologists. The title character also has a nonprofessional shoulder to lean on: Joy Bryant as a fellow sailor named Cheryl who takes a liking to Antwone and encourages him to get to the root of things.

The source of the trouble is vividly depicted for the audience. Antwone has grown up in a Cleveland foster home dominated by a tyrant named Mrs. Tate, fearlessly embodied by Novella Nelson. Mrs. Tate likes to browbeat the boys in her care. Indeed, she's almost Dickensian in her capacity for cruelty to the young and helpless.

She also has a daughter, Nadine (Yolonda Ross), who likes to mess with young boys. So between the physical and sexual abuse that confronts Antwone (played by Malcolm David Kelly at age 7 and Cory Hodges at age 14) and his fellow sufferers, the movie administers a dual shock to tenderhearted spectators.

The boy's later emotional problems are ascribed to the malign influence of the Tates, who seem to have poisoned a mind against itself, drumming away at accusations of worthlessness and inadequacy that sank in.

Antwone has been fighting this miserable heritage in ways that alienate people who have no responsibility for it. Trusting Davenport and Cheryl become starting points for a salvage job with larger social implications: welcoming back all the lost boys and lost children into a secure and encouraging community.

Unfortunately, a considerable amount of mawkish special pleading seeps into the movie's system of benevolence, along with an undercurrent of naivete, much of it attached to hints of sexual dysfunction in both Antwone and the noble shrink.

The traumatic residue from the Tates is blamed for the fact that Antwone remains a virgin at age 25 and suspected of wayward tendencies by mocking shipmates. It's easier to shrug off this misapprehension than the hang-ups invented for Mr. Washington's character: He seems to have slipped into an impotent impasse with his attractive wife, portrayed by Salli Richardson, who hangs around the house in poses and costumes that suggest she is ready for a bedroom comeback.

The movie never reassures you that her spouse is on the same page, or sheet, so to speak. As a result, Davenport's extra-special interest in Antwone's recovery acquires a somewhat, well, ambiguous dimension.

At best, there's something fishy about this inspirational screenplay. If there's a deleted scene in which Davenport and the missus make whoopee from dusk to dawn, I would insert it pronto. Otherwise, Antwone's mocking shipmates may not be the only ones who suspect that something funny is going on.


*1/2

TITLE: "Antwone Fisher"

RATING: PG-13 (Occasional profanity, racial epithets and depictions of domestic violence and child abuse; intimations of sexual depravity, including child molestation)

CREDITS: Directed by Denzel Washington. Written by Antwone Fisher.

RUNNING TIME: 117 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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