Inspirational tearjerkers about victims who triumph over adversity. They’ve been a staple since the earliest days of filmmaking. From The “Miracle Worker” to “A Beautiful Mind,” Hollywood has churned out a long line of true-life heart-tuggers. Some have earned a revered place in cinematic history. Others have launched or cemented successful careers. Almost none have raised as many questions as “Antwone Fisher.”
Denzel Washington makes his directorial debut with the fact based account of a troubled seaman who undergoes anger therapy with a Naval psychiatrist (played by the director), comes to terms with traumas inflicted by physical and sexual abuse he suffered as a child and, in the process, leaves everyone with whom he comes in contact a better human being.
Derek Luke stars in the title role and delivers a convincing performance. The young actor is convincing when he gets into frequent fistfights with his shipmates. He’s convincing when he reluctantly details to Washington atrocities committed under the roof of a particular foster mother (a supremely creepy Novella Nelson). And he’s convincing when his therapy culminates in a journey back to his hometown of Cleveland and closure, which comes from confronting his family.
Less convincing on a number of fronts, however, are the story itself and the unusual way it wound up on the screen. First of all, how many profiles in courageous self-discovery and transcendence are written by the subjects themselves? And I’m not referring to Fisher’s 2001 memoir Finding Fish; I’m talking about the three-hankie screenplay he’d already put on paper eight years prior to the book’s publication during the period when he worked as a security guard at Sony Pictures. Who writes a screen treatment of their life and then an autobiography? And what sort of an individual documents a childhood scarred by violent treatment, abandonment (his mother gave birth to him in prison and didn’t bother to pick him up on her way out) and serial sexual abuse but then tells the press “I lived every scene of it and I wouldn’t change anything about it” as Fisher did in an April 8 interview? Isn’t change the whole point here?
Washington proves craftsmanlike behind the camera. He’s infinitely more impressive as an actor, naturally, even in a supporting role. The personal relationship, which in the film develops between his character and the eponymous patient, has raised eyebrows, however. Sure, it’s touching but, as journalists acquainted with military protocol have pointed out, it’s equally implausible. Ian Grey, for example, observed in The Baltimore City Paper “Washington’s presentation of Navy healthcare procedures is not only inconsistent with medical ethics-it’s ridiculous.”
In interviews, Fisher has maintained the realism of the movie but, on closer inspection, the picture turns out to be rife with inaccuracies. It fails to mention, for example, the fact that he left the Navy well before he made his climactic pilgrimage to Cleveland. Likewise, it neglects to note that, in reality, the ex-soldier’s search for his family took years. In the film, it appears to occur over the course of a long weekend.
The film includes a highly questionable subplot in which the psychologist’s own marital problems are rectified miraculously as a result of his exposure to Fisher, a touch that might charitably be characterized as a self-promotional flourish. More than a few reviewers have used the term “messianic.”
In other cases, it’s what Fisher left out of his saga that makes you wonder. Little things like the fact that he didn’t actually stand up to his abusive foster mother and walk out of her house. In reality, a conscientious social worker discovered his mistreatment and removed him from the home. Also, his birth mother, once contacted, never refused to communicate with her son. The two conducted a correspondence for a time but eventually ceased due to mutual disinclination. The real life Antwone put it this way: “As two people with only DNA in common…given the circumstances of our status, creating a true familial relationship was not possible.”
The writer leaves some significant employment history off his movie resume as well. In addition to his stint as a studio security officer, Fisher also spent three years as a guard at Terminal Island, a facility infamous for its inhumane treatment of prisoners and worked as part of a prostitution and drug ring known to sell small children for sex. As for his latest venture: while the jacket to his book claims the misunderstood youth would go on to “become one of Hollywood’s most well-paid and sought after screenwriters,” Google as I might, I failed to find evidence of his eminence in the field beyond minor rewrite work on classics like Rush Hour and “Money Talks.”
There’s a line the movie’s creators slipped into the closing credits, which reads, “Some of the characters and events depicted in this film are fictional.” We’ll probably never know how many have been added. Or the number left out. A few things, though, are beyond doubt: “Antwone Fisher” is a competently calibrated feel-good machine. It’s as effective as anything on The Lifetime Channel. Which is likely where this project would have wound up were it not for the involvement of Washington. At the same time, there is more-or maybe less-than meets the eye to the movie’s by the numbers hero.
There’s no reason to question the assertion Fisher endured unspeakable treatment. The viewer has every right to wonder, nonetheless, why such a victim would be so much more enthusiastic about sharing his experiences with a Hollywood agent than with a Navy doctor. And, perhaps, to feel somewhat uncomfortable with the thought of a person being so eager to parlay pain into fame. The 44 year old has crafted a hell of an homage to himself. Forgive me if I find the whole thing a little bit Antwone Fishy.