Let’s start with what Antwone Fisher is not.
It is probably not the fifth best film of 2002. That ten years ago it was my fifth favorite viewing experience says a little bit more about my own viewing habits (still a few years away from heading to Toronto annually or catching up on documentaries via Full Frame). I approached revisiting the film with some trepidation, wondering if I would be embarrassed in retrospect for admiring it so strongly. Here’s another thing it is not, however. It is not a bad film. The discipline of looking again ten years later sometimes makes one realize who much one has changed, but it can also remind one to trust his instincts. Sometimes you get it right.
What I Said Then
(originally posted at Viewpoint, a precursor to this blog)
Denzel Washinton’s directorial debut tells of an angry young black man who refuses to allow his environment or his family history to be an excuse for not growing. Derek Luke gives an award worthy performance as the real life Fisher, in part because he lets the story convey the power rather than trying to chew the scenery. In fact, it is Luke’s quietness that charges this film with electricity; we come to believe that he has been deeply wounded. Fisher’s confrontation with his biological mother is a wonderfully subversive moment; while he tells her about all the things he hasn’t done (take drugs, have a kid out of wedlock, go to prison, join a gang) we realize that what we were looking at as a stereotype (angry young Black man) was, in fact, a real person.
Fisher currently has a 79% “fresh” rating at Rotten Tomatoes, with an average score of 6.9, and a Metacritic score of 62. At the latter site, positive reviews outnumber negative ones 17 to 2, but there are nearly as many mixed reviews as positive one. Critics seem to agree, then, that it is a worthy film but are somewhat reluctant to give it much more than a mild thumb’s up. My estimation that it was not mere good, but superior was, and still is, in the minority.
What I Say Now
I had largely forgotten most of the plot details of the film, but I recalled the subplot involving tension between Washington’s therapist and his wife as playing a larger part in the film. Also, I had largely redacted the child-sex abuse angle that triggers one of Fisher’ s violent attacks. From the outside looking in, the film seems structured like Good Will Hunting or Ordinary People, with the primary relationship being between the patient and the therapist. The thing that elevates the film slightly, in my book, is that it really is about Antwone. His relationship with Dr. Davenport (Denzel Washington) is a catalyst for a journey of self discovery and personal choices, but therapy isn’t a magic wand that makes the connections for him; it only pushes him in the right direction.
The scenes between Antwone and Cherly (Joy Bryant) are tender and insightful. When he asks her to accompany him on a trip to Cleveland, she at first avers, but relents when he is able to express how important the trip is to him. The scene has the feel of something drawn from life, where decisions can be made based on our understanding of other people based on the totality of the relationship and not just the eloquence of one scene.
The best scene is that between Antwone and his biological mother, and I was pleased to see I recognized is as such–and as key to the film’s success–in the prior review.
Which brings me, roundabout, to Derek Luke. That it is Antwone’s story means that Luke is the connecting tissue in each scene that works and the main reason the film is able to avoid some of the pitfalls that accompany a somewhat formulaic script. There are a couple of misfires, such as a scene where Fisher reads a poem aloud in the doctor’s living room and another where he announces upon his return trip that he is “no longer a virgin.” That there aren’t more is probably a function of Luke’s restraint. He has one explosive scene in the doctor’s office after he has been dismissed for using up his allotted number of therapy sessions, but most scenes are quieter–including one where Dr. Davenport visits Antwone in the brig and the wounded young man finally lets out the secret that has been eating at him. Most of these scenes would be played louder by other actors, I think, but Luke does a great job at conveying how much of Antwone’s anger comes from his pain, which in turn makes the character’s development more plausible as he deals with the sources of that pain.
Luke garnered a lot of acclaim for this role. including some sort of acknowledgement for a breakout/breakthrough performance from the Teen Choice Awards, National Board of Review, The Online Film Critics Society, and MTV Movie Awards. His credits since then include the film version of Friday Night Lights, Catch a Fire, Lions for Lambs, and Spike Lee’s Miracle at St. Anna. He’s also done television work in Hawthorne and Trauma. That’s a respectable body of work, but it is hard to look over his filmography at IMDB and not feel a little disappointed–not at the actor, but that there are not haven’t been more films that could stretch and utilize his talents. There are fewer things more exciting than seeing a new talent and thinking, “I can’t wait to see what he/she does next” (more on that when I revisit America Ferrara’s Real Women Have Curves). There are fewer things more frustrating than wondering, “Is anyone ever going to give this person a role he or she can really shine in”?
Hey Hollywood, ten years ago you introduced us to Derek Luke. Isn’t it time to reacquaint us?