Political Film Society - Antwone Fisher

PFS Film Review
Antwone Fisher


Antwone FisherAntwone Fisher, a young African American in the U.S. Navy decided one day to write the story of his life. Ten years later, his autobiography, with some fictionalization, has now been portrayed on the screen. The story so deeply touched Denzel Washington that he decided to direct a biopic, Antwone Fisher, in which he also plays the role of the psychiatrist, Dr. Jerome Davenport, who did so much to help Fisher to resolve problems which not only prompted him to enlist in the navy but also threatened to get him a discharge for misconduct. When the film begins, a five-year-old is dreaming about eating pancakes with his family. When Fisher (played by Derek Luke) wakes up, a white sailor on a ship in Pearl Harbor soon ribs him about the color of his face. After Fisher explodes with rage and his fist, he ends up reduced in rank, restricted to the base, and required to take three sessions with a naval psychiatrist. Since he does not believe himself to be "crazy," the usual stereotype of a psychiatrist's patient, Fisher at first shares very little information with Dr. Davenport. To his credit, and contrary to much current psychiatric practice, Dr. Davenport decides not to prescribe pills. Fisher, Dr. Davenport eventually learns, was born in a correctional facility in Ohio where his mother was incarcerated, and his father died of a gunshot wound from a girlfriend two months before he was born. He was then assigned to a foster African American mother, Mrs. Tate (played by Novella Nelson), who mentally and physically abused him, calling him "nigger." His foster mother's teenage daughter abused him sexually, and one day he ran away to the home of a friend on the block, but rejecting his foster parent meant that he was next reassigned to a reform school. When he completed reform school, he was taken to a shelter, then slept on park benches, and went to see his boyhood friend. His friend, however, asked him to accompany him to a foodstore, which his friend unexpectedly tried to rob; when the proprietor shot his friend, he fled, and Antwone soon enlisted in the navy. Dr. Davenport sees a connection between his childhood experience and his rage, which emerges twice again while with his navy buddies. Dr. Davenport also links Fisher's insecurity in courting an attractive young woman, Cheryl (played by Joy Bryant), with the childhood abuse, and talking about the problem helps as much as being with Cheryl, who is very understanding. When Dr. Davenport feels that therapy sessions are no longer needed, he implores Fisher to search for his birth-mother so that he can dissipate the anger that he appears to be reenacting. Fisher and Cheryl then fly to Cleveland and visit his foster mother, who supplies him with his birthfather's surname, Elkin; then the two telephone every Elkin in Cleveland area phonebooks until they locate Fisher's aunt. His aunt invites him over, and a family member drives him to meet his birthmother in perhaps the saddest encounter in the film. His birthmother, speechless during the meeting, cries after he leaves. When he returns to visit his aunt, the dream that began the film comes true--a table set for a king, surrounded by many of his long-lost relatives and his girlfriend Cheryl. Returning to Honolulu, he thanks Dr. Davenport for all his help, but the psychiatrist surprises him by thanking Fisher for enabling him to save his own marriage. When the film ends, amid audience applause on an opening night screening in Hollywood, a title tells us that Antwone dedicated the film to his deceased birthfather. Few in the audience knew until seeing Antwone Fisher how locating birthparents (the term used by adoptees nowadays, rather than the film's passé terminology about "real" or "natural" parents) can be so important to someone who feels that he was once abandoned. The film indirectly can be seen as a plea for governments in the fifty states to open up records so that those who suffer psychologically can become whole. More explicitly, the film is an exposé of what Dr. Davenport calls "slave mentality," that is, the tendency for generations of African Americans to engage in ethnic self-hate by abusing one another, just as they were once abused by their white masters, a masochistic "identification with the aggressor" that was identified by Theodore Reich as an explanation for the transformation of ordinary Germans into militant anti-Semites after Hitler came to power. Accordingly, the Political Film Society has nominated Antwone Fisher as best film exposé and best film on peace of 2002. MH

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