Dir: Denzel Washington. US. 2002. 117mins
An assured directorial debut from double Oscar-winner Denzel Washington, Antwone Fisher is an inspirational true story of one man's struggle to overcome the legacy of an abused childhood. It may sound like the subject matter of countless TV-movies dramas but, handled with discretion and sensitivity, it justifies its status as big screen fare and features a star-making performance from Derek Luke in the title role. Solid box-office returns can be expected from its US release on Dec 20, but broad critical support and some award recognition may be essential if it is to make headway in overseas markets.
Less sentimental and gung-ho than might have been expected, Antwone Fisher has the same qualities as Washington's acting, which means it is subtle, refined and respects the value of intelligent understatement. Besides, Fisher's story is so inherently moving and uplifting that it does not need any extra pressure placed on the heartstrings.
A hotheaded, angry young sailor with a hair-trigger temper, Fisher's habit of settling any argument with his fists eventually brings him to the attention of naval psychiatrist Jerome Davenport (Washington). Sullen and uncommunicative, he refuses to even speak during their first sessions but is worn down by Davenport's patience and persuaded to talk of his past. The hub of the drama becomes the sessions between psychiatrist and patient as Fisher tells of the father he never knew and the mother who gave him up for adoption, of the terrible physical and sexual abuse he suffered at the hands of his foster mother and the sense of abandonment that has fuelled his anger. The audience later learn that he was present when his closest friend was shot dead trying to rob a convenience store.
Written by Fisher, the film charts his progress from sullen outsider to proud, self-confident young man as Davenport becomes a father figure to him and he falls in love with fellow naval officer Cheryl (Bryant). Davenport also grows during the film, recognising Fisher as the son he never had and never acknowledged that he might have wanted. A final confrontation with his birth mother and his father's living relatives makes for a powerful and satisfying emotional conclusion to Fisher's journey.
If Fisher provides a distillation of his experiences that is absorbing and involving, then Washington serves the material well with a light touch and a sense of discretion. He never lingers over the horrors of Fisher's past and encourages the audience's imagination to supply what he chooses not to depict: thus the boy's sexual abuse is distantly heard without being seen, while his friend's death is depicted but without the blood and guts. It is a tactful, tasteful approach that pays dividends.
Washington's own performance grounds everything in solid conviction but the film's ace is Derek Luke, who takes the giant step up from television roles to deliver a confident, charismatic performance as man who becomes heroic in his efforts to free himself from the past and find a better life. Inevitably, there is something of the young Washington in his charm and presence and acclaim for Antwone Fisher can only confirm the old cliche that a new star is born.
Prod co: Mundy Lane/Todd Black
US dist: Fox Searchlight
Int'l sales: Twentieth Century Fox
Prods: Todd Black, Denzel Washington, Randa Haines
Exec prod: Nancy Paloian-Breznikar
Scr: Antwone Fisher, based on his book
Cinematography: Phillipe Rousselot
Prod des: Nelson Coates
Ed: Conrad Buff
Music: Mychael Danna
Main cast: Derek Luke, Joy Bryant, Denzel Washington, Salli Richardson, Earl Billings, Kevin Connolly