Antwone Fisher Does a Disservice to a Serviceman's Psychological Struggle
First off, yes, Denzel can direct, although he's more inclined to the stodgy earnestness of Norman Jewison than the grit of Spike Lee (both have directed Washington in the past). His intentions with his topic--the radical childhood abuse suffered by the real Antwone Fisher, who also wrote this fictionalized account--are impeccable. It's good that the film, as far as it goes, exists. It's lousy that it settles for misleading panaceas and a subject-degrading Hollywood ending.
We meet the movie Fisher (Derek Luke), a young African-American man, while he's stationed on a Navy aircraft carrier in San Diego. His childhood trauma manifests via unmanageable rage--a hint of racist spew from another sailor, and he's busting heads. In lieu of the brig, he's ordered to see Dr. Davenport (Washington), a Navy psychiatrist with a quietly disintegrating marriage.
Davenport guides him through the nightmare process of recalling the events that will lead to his psychological reintegration (the murder of his father, abandonment by his mother, systematic degradation/beatings of his foster mother, repeated rape by a babysitter, and homelessness at age 17). He meets a sweet girl named Cheryl (Joy Bryant) who's willing to do whatever it takes. Everything you think is going to happen, happens: Davenport's relationship with Fisher allows him to deal with his own issues; Fisher and Cheryl become intimate; Fisher confronts and defeats his demons.
What's admirable is how far Washington is willing to go in his depictions of Fisher's godawful upbringing, his explorations of child abuse as a form of African-American rage turned in on itself, and his understanding of the cyclical nature of violence. Until its final descent into dishonest wish fulfillment, the film offers some teasing moments that suggest Washington understands the need for urban realism a la Abel Ferrara, even while his lesser instincts are compelled to resort to the comfort-compulsive fantasyland resolutions of Steven Spielberg.
The scenes set in the Cleveland of Fisher's boyhood are the real, ghastly deal, filmed by cinematographer Philippe Rousselot in a color-drained manner that emphasizes their absolute unsuitability for human habitation. Washington finds a horrific motif for transferred self-loathing when foster mother Mrs. Tate (Novella Nelson) refuses to call young Antwone by his actual name, substituting instead the "n-word" anytime she addresses him. Washington also shows elegant discretion in his depiction of the boy's first rape, which doesn't at all soften the horror of his violation. And a brief scene where Fisher confronts the mother (Viola Davis) we've been led to assume is monstrous reveals her to instead be discomfortingly human.
Acting-wise, there's certainly nothing to complain about. Bryant, a model-turned-actress, has a warmly cuddly feline presence, although her utter commitment-without-complaint to her man lacks even the one freak-out scene Jennifer Connelly was allowed in A Beautiful Mind. Washington lends his usual irresistible gravitas to his saintly Davenport, and seems to enjoy being on the relative sidelines here. And newcomer Luke's performance is a naturalistic marvel of understatement, especially considering the psychological poppycock he's required to sell later in the film.
Washington's presentation of Navy healthcare procedures is not only inconsistent with medical ethics--it's ridiculous. Anyone who's been in therapy will be mordantly amused to find that Fisher's Navy health plan includes endless office visits, midnight and at-home counseling, and surrogate family privileges. Meanwhile, the director's sun-kissed utopian view of bucolic Navy base life seems an advertising adjunct to 1-800-GO-NAVY, an impression reinforced by irrelevant montages of sailors assembling on cool-looking carriers.
For a boy tortured--literally--by women since birth, Fisher suffers no adult sexual problems. His other psych problems are cured--permanently, apparently--after his encounter with Davenport and via the support of an extended family that materializes, quite literally, out of the blue (and to create closure for a ham-fisted bookending effect also borrowed from the Book of Spielberg) .
Films such as A Beautiful Mind and Antwone Fisher deserve limited props for addressing their respective issues but are ultimately superficial weep-and-dismiss engagements. Most schizophrenics don't enjoy total remission; survivors of the kind of abuse depicted in Fisher face catastrophic depression, substance abuse, sexual dysfunction, suicide attempts, and symptomatic relapse. Therapy lasts years.
Sugar-coating such realities offers audiences false reassurances that such problems are fairly easily managed and ameliorated. There's no denying Antwone Fisher's efficiency as a five-hankie special, but the rushed epiphanies and over-the-top resolving uplift of Washington's last reel are almost insultingly glib in light of the horrors his hero faced. You'd think that the mere fact that Fisher survived, soul intact, would be miraculous enough.