Written and co-produced by Antwone Fisher himself, this story based on his life offers hope to angry young men struggling to put a harsh past behind them and move on. At age 25, Fisher is a sailor constantly in trouble for fighting. His violent, hair-trigger reaction to pranks and verbal goading lands him in the office of Navy psychiatrist Dr. Jerome Davenport. Fisher refuses to talk. That’s fine with Davenport, who patiently keeps rescheduling him for weekly, one-hour sessions and doing paperwork while the silent young man sits in the room. Eventually Fisher opens up, in part because he wants to stop lashing out at people and know that he’s capable of pursuing a healthy dating relationship with a pretty bookstore clerk named Cheryl.
Fisher’s heartrending stories of a lonely, abusive childhood are described or shown in flashback. It seems Antwone’s father died before he was born. The child entered the world in a women’s prison, was placed in an orphanage and suffered abuse in a foster home. Abandoned to the streets as a teenager, he went to reform school and eventually joined the Navy.
In the weeks that follow his first conversation with Davenport, Fisher’s tension eases. He gains perspective on his painful history. He grows to respect the psychiatrist as a father figure and develops a sweet romantic friendship with Cheryl. Things are going well. But Davenport tells Fisher that, before complete healing and forgiveness can occur, the young man needs to contact his family, including the mother he never knew. So Antwone and Cheryl go on a quest. What will they find? And how will it impact their future? While not everything goes as one might hope, the film ends on a feel-good note that may require a tissue or two.
positive elements: Outbursts notwithstanding, Fisher is a good-hearted young man who avoided drugs, crime, gangs, illicit sexual relationships and other poor choices common among urban males forced to raise themselves. He speaks two languages (he’s in the process of learning a third) and takes pride in serving his country. Antwone is selfless in his affection for Cheryl. Concerned that his bottled-up rage may poison her life, he wants to improve. “Do you think it’s possible for someone who had problems all their life …” he trails off while talking to Davenport. “Do you think they can change?” At various turns, viewers see the consequences of immoral or unhealthy decisions. An adulterer is murdered by his mistress. A petty thief loses his life during a holdup attempt. A mother who turned her back on her child suffers for her selfishness. Fisher is soundly reprimanded, demoted and fined for his lack of self-control.
Elsewhere, a married couple having trouble communicating endure hard times until humility and effort help them right the ship. Davenport is a patient, caring man who, filling in for the dad Fisher never had, puts an arm around his young friend and tells him that he loves him. He also tells Fisher, “You’re good because you’re honest—more honest than most people, even in your anger.” Davenport goes on to urge him to channel his anger into something constructive. When Antwone’s ship docks in Mexico, other sailors pick up women, but he doesn’t (apparently out of respect for his girl back home) and sustains ridicule for it. As young boys, Antwone and his childhood pal, Jesse, are inseparable friends. Jesse comforts him and gives him refuge when he is hurting. As an adult, Antwone confronts the people who abused him, but without vengeance (“I’m still standing. I’m still strong and I always will be”). He also forgives his mother. Powerful scenes show family members helping Antwone connect with his kin and feel part of something bigger than himself.
spiritual content: Davenport and his extended family join hands around the dinner table and bow their heads for a Thanksgiving prayer. Other than that, Christianity takes it on the chin. Fisher’s cruel foster parents head a tiny, African American church. The pastor is said to be a physically abusive “fire-breathin’ preacher.” His wife, Mrs. Tate, is physically, verbally and emotionally ruthless, using racial slurs to demean the boys. During a charismatic church service, the bored children know they’ll be rewarded if they pretend to be filled with the Holy Spirit so they dance around chaotically. An adult Antwone goes into a tirade that includes a mockery of faith-healing and the laying on of hands.
sexual content: Nothing explicit, but issues related to sex and sexual abuse demand that this film be viewed by mature audiences. Although not shown, a woman living in Antwone’s foster home abuses him sexually. We overhear her giving the 7-year-old boy instructions to undress, and it is implied that she has disrobed for him. He is repulsed and frightened by this (it’s apparently not an isolated incident). During a session with Dr. Davenport, he mentions that one of his “brothers” in foster care was raped by his birthmother’s boyfriend. Sailors at a club pick up women and are entertained by dancers in immodest dress. One of Fisher’s shipmates casts aspersions on his sexuality, saying that because they’d never seen him with a girl he must be a “faggot.” Such behaviors and attitudes are clearly condemned. More disturbing is the stigma applied to virginity by several characters in the movie. It may be no surprise to hear a macho sailor belittle Antwone’s lack of experience, but Fisher himself is embarrassed by it. While most of his relationship with Cheryl is sweet and innocent, after some tender kissing, it is implied that the couple sleep together. He proudly tells Davenport, “I’m not a virgin anymore,” to which his senior officer/confidant replies, “I’m glad to hear that.” Ugh! Even the respected father figure is apparently relieved that Antwone is no longer “burdened” by his virginity!
violent content: Outbursts and fistfights erupt on several occasions between Antwone and his shipmates. Mrs. Tate beats the three boys in her care with a wet washrag. She hits Fisher with a shoe, threatens him with fire and locks him in a dark cellar where she ties him to a metal pipe. Fisher says, “She used to brag about beatin’ me unconscious.” Another woman slaps the boy around. A flashback shows Antwone’s father being killed by a shotgun blast that knocks him down a flight of stairs. A thug tries to hold up a convenience store, only to have the clerk pull a gun and shoot him in the head (blood splatters, the body drops).
crude or profane language: Approximately 20 profanities or obscenities. Unusual for a PG-13 film, the f-word is audible three times and seems to be muffled a fourth. There are also four s-words and two exclamatory uses of Jesus’ name. In addition, dialogue includes nearly 20 n-words, a racial slur spewed almost exclusively by Mrs. Tate, an African American.
drug and alcohol content: Alcohol is consumed during meals and by servicemen in a club, but not to excess. Antwone makes a point of saying that he has never done drugs.
other negative elements: Other forms of mental cruelty on the part of Mrs. Tate include taking Antwone’s money from him, and calling him retarded and unwanted. During jags of anger, Antwone is occasionally insolent and disrespectful to authority (but not without consequence).
conclusion: Antwone Fisher is a heartwarming triumph for Oscar-winner Denzel Washington, who makes his debut behind the camera. Newcomer Derek Luke (a real-life friend of Fisher) plays the title role with just enough angst that we feel deeply for him without being pulled down into an emotional funk. He’s polite, likeable and easy to root for. An overcomer. Fisher isn’t out to blame the system. Nor is he about to curl into a fetal position and accept that he’s no better than the hand he’s been dealt. He wants to improve, and after much futility realizes he needs to trust another human being to help him. The healing that occurs and the friendship that develops are wonderful to see, due in no small part to the many relaxed, warm performances throughout the film. The romance between Antwone and Cheryl is especially endearing for its awkward innocence. If only they hadn’t implied sex between the couple near the end and treated virginity like a social disease. If only the language had been a bit more restrained. If only the shooting in the convenience store had left a little more to the imagination. Such “if onlys” keep me from heartily recommending what is otherwise a powerful reminder of a person’s ability to change, as well as our need to protect the innocent and resist judging someone without understanding their back story.