A young black boy stands tall among amber waves of grain. A large black hand reaches out to him. He takes it and the large black farmer leads him to a barn. The man opens the door for the child and a community encompassing at least a century of American black folk, generations of family, waits around a table within. The boy is offered his favorite dish, a steaming plate of hotcakes, and the sometimes mysterious journey of Antwone Fisher begins with an idyllic dream of homecoming that recalls a film by Gordon Parks, one of the fathers of modern African-American cinema, The Learning Tree (1969).
“A black Good Will Hunting goes Navy,” is the handle some industry insiders have stuck on Antwone Fisher. The phrase could offer some a quick grasp on Denzel Washington’s directorial debut. But it proves to be too facile and flimsy to hold the weight of the emotions and rarely screened issues packed inside this melodrama.
The working-class heroes of both films are young and act out their anger issues with a repressed appetite for self-destruction. Both find redemption at the feet — well, on the couch — of wise psychologists who work their way through the minefield and garden of transference, the process in which patients transfer childhood feelings, especially those about a parent, to their therapists. And like Will Hunting, Antwone Fisher (Derek Luke) stumbles into love.
But Antwone Fisher isn’t Good Will Hunting with a black cast and a naval setting. Antwone may be as young as Will, but he’s not as singularly gifted intellectually and his blackness is not superficial, but essential to his story. Unlike the world-weary and calloused Will, Antwone is a sweet kid, though he hastily defends his vulnerability with his fists. Where Will’s journey is an escape from home to hope, Antwone’s is toward the redemption of atonement and a hope to return home.
As a man and a sailor, Antwone teaches hard lessons to his shipmates: He serves up some hastily heated whup-ass to whoever hands him the routine naval ration of shit. His fighting leads to a demotion from petty officer to seaman and then to orders for compulsory psychiatric evaluation in lieu of dishonorable discharge. That’s when Cmdr. Jerome Davenport, Washington’s character, enters the picture with a kind of charismatic Hollywood decency that only has a peer in Tom Hanks.
Davenport is Antwone’s assigned psychologist and his new patient proves to be a hard nut to crack. But as time goes by in their mandatory one-hour sessions, the mysterious images with which Washington the director punctuates his plot — dropping them on us like bombs — develop a meaning in the flashback context of Antwone’s often grim tale told in therapy. Between the lines, Antwone’s story becomes an allegory of the traumatic black American experience.
This story wells up from the same source as tragedy, mythic romance and fairy tales: the suffering that permeates our human existence and our hope of redemption. Like a tragedy, Antwone Fisher floats on waves of pathos — the human engine of pity and compassion — capped with villainous fear. But, unlike tragic heroes, Antwone isn’t incurably lashed to the mast of his flaws. His long, stumbling journey to find love, his home and, ultimately, himself plays out mundanely, but is mythic too. Along the way, his therapist becomes a father figure and mentor, and he must face his traumatic past personified by his wicked foster mother and sister. This tale, though, finds its pedigree in those generally ascribed to lesser muses: Antwone Fisher is a successful, modern example of a failing genre in our brave, new and ironic world of cinema — it’s a pure melodrama.
After years of yanking my heartstrings back from tear-jerking Hollywood puppeteers like Steven Spielberg, I have to admit that the lights went up to reveal scarcely a dry eye — including my own — in a house filled with jaded film critics. That’s no mean feat. Washington’s straightforward direction has moments of beauty and power, making it hard not to swallow the sentiments of screenwriter Antwone Fisher’s true story hook, line and sinker.
James Keith La Croix writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].