Rated PG-13. Running time: 2 hours.
Our content rating (1-10): Violence 3; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 4.
Our star rating (1-5): 5
Then people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God. Indeed, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.
Denzel Washington has picked a fine script for his initial foray into the director’s chair. Antwone Fisher himself wrote the script based on his book about his struggle with and search for his family roots. When sailor Antwone Fisher (Derek Luke) is sent to Navy psychiatrist Jerome Davenport (Denzel Washington) because of so many fights, the young man is determined not to cooperate. He doesn’t have a problem, it’s the other guys, he declares. Dr. Davenport, however, is both an insightful and a patient man. Realizing that Fisher must accept help if he is save his Navy career, he out waits Antwone. According to regulations you have to go through three sessions with the therapist, and a session begins only when the patient begins to talk. Antwone stubbornly sits in the doctor’s office, which allows Davenport to catch up on his paper work. Finally he begins to spill out his troubled story.
In words and flashbacks we learn of the murder of his father two months before he was born, and of his mother’s giving birth to him when she was imprisoned. Abandoned and turned over to the state, he was finally raised by a religious black couple whom he came to fear, never to love (or be loved by). Even more fearsome was his older foster sister who sexually abused him.
Dr. Davenport becomes a source of inspiration and support to the young man over the weeks of his treatment, even agreeing to his wife’s invitation for the sailor to celebrate Thanksgiving with them. Another positive factor in Antwone’s life is his developing relationship with fellow sailor Cheryl Smolley (Joy Bryant), a well adjusted young woman drawn to him despite his attempt to ignore her. Antwone’s attitude improves, and yet his fiery temper is still far from under control. Dr. Davenport knows that Antwone is still lacking something. He tells him what it is and what he must do if he really is to get his life together.
(There are some spoilers in this paragraph.) It is not something Antwone wants to do because of the pain that will be involved. He must try to search out his mother and find out something about his father—and forgive them. Finally, with Cheryl agreeing to accompany him, Antwone takes leave time and returns to his native Cleveland, Ohio. He and Cheryl, with just a name in their possession, make a hundred or more telephone calls in search of anyone who might be kinfolk. He does find his foster mother and sister, but it is no Hollywood “let by-gones be by-gones” reunion. And yet there is a little moment of grace even here, whereby Antwone discovers his real family.
There follows one of the most heart-felt scenes to be seen anywhere on the screen this year. It is the fulfillment of a dream that haunts the young man at the very beginning of the dream—and it immediately called to my mind Jesus’ words about the kingdom of God as being a great feast open to all the faithful. This is a climax that brings tears, and they are very much earned, unmarred as this film is by any cheap sentimentality. The scene immediately is followed by the sobering meeting that he has both wanted and dreaded, and it too is powerful in its own way.
There is a subplot in which Jerome Davenport also finds healing for a family problem he is unable to face. Clearly, this older and younger man are good for each other. We are told just before the credits roll that the two men have remained friends through the years, a statement that is like frosting on the cake. This is the kind of film that makes film-going such an exhilarating experience at times.
Even some of the events behind the film are inspiring. Antwone Fisher worked at Sony Pictures in Hollywood as a security guard while he was working on his script. When the finished work came to the attention of the producers, they showed it to Denzel Washington. He was so taken with it that he decided it would be the first film that he would direct. Then the search for a young actor to portray Antwone began. Finally the filmmakers chose the unknown Derek Luke over better-known actors. Only then did he reveal that he was a friend of Antwone. He was worried that if the connection became known he might not get the part.