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A Director And His Hero Find Answers In the Details

December 19, 2002, Thursday, New York Times

FILM REVIEW; A Director And His Hero Find Answers In the Details
Hollywood is notoriously adept at punching emotional buttons that send a lump into your throat and make your eyes well up. But when was the last time those Pavlovian responses were connected to a lode of emotional truth volatile enough to resonate long after the movie was over?

''Antwone Fisher,'' the story of a troubled young African-American sailor whose sessions with a Navy psychiatrist prod him to embark on a scary but ultimately healing journey of self-discovery, is a movie so profoundly in touch with its own feelings that it transcends its formulaic tics. If the inspirational ending slaps two too many synthetic cherries on the sundae, the movie still induces the sort of catharsis that leaves you feeling released, enlightened and in deeper touch with humanity.

The directorial debut of Denzel Washington, who portrays that psychiatrist, ''Antwone Fisher'' is an archetypal male weepie in the tradition of ''Good Will Hunting,'' which it strongly resembles but finally surpasses. As a director Mr. Washington shows a confident grasp of cinematic narrative in a hearty meat-and-potatoes style. But the most remarkable aspect of his behind-the-camera debut is his brilliantly surefooted handling of actors.

Virtually all the performances, down to the smallest role, exhibit the same mixture of detailed refinement and raw honesty that characterize Mr. Washington's best work as a screen actor.

As Jerome Davenport, a psychiatrist whose stiff upper lip and grin-and-bear-it attitude have begun to undermine his own marriage, Mr. Washington is so sensitively reactive that his performance seems more lived than acted. And from Derek Luke, the newcomer who plays the movie's title character, he has elicited a compelling and complex character study that strikes a universal chord. Mr. Luke's performance is hands down the year's most auspicious screen acting debut.

This charismatic young actor has the challenge of conveying the seesawing moods of a bright, angry young man scarred by childhood rejection and abuse, whose streak of hotheadedness threatens to get him bounced out of the Navy. Juggling his hurt and fear, with a ferocious desire to face down his demons, Antwone is a sensitive artist (he writes poetry and draws) who, given the chance, lunges headlong after the self-knowledge that will help him deal with that hurt. As the film follows Antwone's efforts to break through his own defensive shell, it raises issues that cut beneath conventional therapeutic wisdom about child abuse and its repercussions. In flashing back to show the excruciating humiliations of Antwone's childhood, the screenplay forcefully connects them to a larger pattern of African-American social dysfunction.

Early in Antwone's therapy the doctor gives him John W. Blassingame's book ''The Slave Community,'' which theorizes that the harsh discipline Antwone (like countless children like him) endured as a foster child growing up in Cleveland was an internalized reflection of the abuse his ancestors suffered at the hands of slave owners. Those slave owners, it suggests, loomed as punishing surrogate parents, wielding far more authority than the slaves' own biological parents.

To any child, the behavior of an ultimate authority figure, no matter how oppressive, tends to define how that child wields parental power later in life. According to the theory, that pattern of instilled self-loathing established in the days of slavery has been passed down from generation to generation.

The scenes of the cruelties inflicted on the young Antwone and his two foster brothers by their black foster mother Mrs. Tate (Novella Nelson) are as chilling as they are graphic. She continually reviles them with demeaning racial epithets and uses the flimsiest excuses to administer severe corporal punishment. In one scene the young Antwone, his hands tied, is savagely beaten with a wet dish towel for supposedly dirtying the walls. In another, she menaces the boy with a flaming torch made from a rolled-up newspaper.

What makes her tirades all the more destructive is the tone of thunderous moral judgment that informs her racial invective. A few years later Antwone is further humiliated by a cousin, Nadine (Yolonda Ross), living in the Tate home, who coerces him into playing sexual games.

The film was written by the real-life Antwone Fisher, an aspiring screenwriter whose story first caught the attention of Todd Black (one of the movie's producers) a decade ago when Mr. Fisher worked as a security guard for Sony Pictures in Los Angeles. Before turning his story into a movie, Mr. Fisher wrote a memoir, ''Finding Fish,'' which was published last year.

The movie first encounters Antwone at the Southern California naval base, where he is a wary, hypersensitive outsider who lashes out at the tiniest hint of a racial slur. After one too many incidents in which he loses his head, he is sent to Davenport for three therapy sessions that will determine his future in the Navy. At first Antwone refuses to talk. But once he starts telling his story, the emotional floodgates open.

Flashbacks, prompted by the therapy sessions, show Antwone's desolate childhood. Born in prison two months after his father was murdered by an ex-girlfriend, he lived in an orphanage for two years. When his mother never appeared to claim him, he landed in the home of the Tates, a storefront preacher and his wife. Thrown out of the Tate house after standing up to his foster mother, he stayed briefly in a men's shelter, then joined the Navy after a criminal escapade that nearly cost him his life.

As Antwone grows to trust Davenport, the psychiatrist relaxes the normally strict boundaries of the doctor-patient relationship. Antwone becomes a surrogate son to the doctor, who is himself in denial about the pain of his childless marriage.

Under Davenport's tutelage, Antwone, who has remained virginal because of his sexual abuse, begins dating Cheryl (Joy Bryant), also a sailor, who intuits his basic goodness and gently nurtures his self-esteem. In the final step, Davenport urges Antwone to return to Cleveland to search for his biological family. The last quarter of the film follows him on a journey that proves fruitful in ways that are at once agonizing and freeing.

If ''Antwone Fisher'' is a bluntly inspirational film promoting the benefits of a tough-love style of therapy, it doesn't pretend that Antwone's breakthroughs are quick fixes. Where ''Good Will Hunting'' implied that one good cry could work a psychological miracle, ''Antwone Fisher'' acknowledges that such a cry is just the first of many on a long, bumpy emotional road. If the movie's sugar-coated ending leaves a hint of saccharine, its beautifully balanced performances and faith in its characters keep it honest despite itself.

''Antwone Fisher'' is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). It has some profanity, racial insults, mild violence and discreetly handled sexual situations.


Directed by Denzel Washington; written by Antwone Fisher; director of photography, Philippe Rousselot; edited by Conrad Buff; music by Mychael Danna; production designer, Nelson Coates; produced by Todd Black, Randa Haines and Mr. Washington; released by Fox Searchlight Pictures. Running time: 117 minutes. This film is rated PG-13.

WITH: Derek Luke (Antwone Fisher), Joy Bryant (Cheryl), Denzel Washington (Jerome Davenport), Salli Richardson (Berta), Earl Billings (James), Kevin Connolly (Slim), Yolanda Ross (Nadine) and Novella Nelson (Mrs. Tate).

Published: 12 - 19 - 2002 , Late Edition - Final , Section E , Column 1.

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