Feb 26

“Antwone Fisher”: Hard-Won Therapy Success

The message is old-fashioned and unironic: With determination and support, a person can overcome adversity…
(That the doctor has his own communication problems with his wife is a nice, if overemphatic, shrinks-are-human touch.) Lisa Schwarzbaum, Entertainment Weekly, about Antwone Fisher

Declared one of the top 10 of its year by the American Film Institute, the award-winning therapy-driven Antwone Fisher (2002) was directed by Denzel Washington and written for the screen by Fisher himself.

Finding Fish: A Memoir, by Fisher and Mim E. Rivas, had come out the year before. Publishers Weekly: “An unflinching look at the adverse effects foster care can have on a child’s life, this stunning autobiography rises above the pack of success fables from survivors of America’s inner cities.”

The crux of the film, which as usual takes a few liberties with the true story, is Fisher’s (Derek Luke) relationship with his Navy psychiatrist, Dr. Jerome Davenport (played by Washington). (Now a major star, Viola Davis has a small but powerful role too.)

Stephen Holden, New York Times, summarizes this “movie so profoundly in touch with its own feelings that it transcends its formulaic tics”:

[Luke] 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…

The trailer’s below:


Roger Ebert, rogerebert.com: “Naval regulations require them to have three sessions of therapy, and the first session doesn’t start until Antwone talks. So week after week, Antwone sits there while the doctor does paperwork, until finally they have a conversation…”

Stephen Holden, New York Times, on points made about the lingering effects of slavery:

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.

After Fisher opens up somewhat, Davenport allows the therapy structure to loosen; one example is that he invites Fisher to his home for dinner. According to Cinematherapy.com, in the context of the particular circumstances most of the relaxed boundaries serve a therapeutic purpose. Some are iffier, however, e.g., Davenport not always honoring confidentiality.


In addition to a meaningful romance Fisher’s able to develop with Cheryl (Joy Bryant), another sailor, there’s also a major turning point near the end of the film. Roger Ebert, rogerebert.com:

Davenport argues with the young man that all of his troubles come down to a need to deal with his past. He needs to return to Ohio and see if he can find family members. He needs closure…

Without detailing what happens, I will mention three striking performances from this part of the movie, by Vernee Watson-Johnson as Antwone’s aunt, by Earl Billings as his uncle, and by Viola Davis as his mother…

Holden’s conclusion aptly compares the therapy of Antwone Fisher to that of Good Will Hunting (1997):

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.

Jan 27

“12 Years a Slave” and “Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome”

So overpowering is this film’s simple, horrible, and almost entirely true story that it’s hard to get enough distance on 12 Years a Slave to poke at its inner workings. Dana Stevens, Slate

In the Steve McQueen-directed 12 Years a Slave, based on the book published in the mid-1850’s, free man Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is kidnapped in the North and sold into slavery in the South. As is well illustrated in the movie, he suddenly and terrifyingly loses all connection to his life as a husband, father, and musician, among other things. He’s forced to take a new name (Platt), has to pretend to be illiterate, and is continually demeaned and brutalized.

Toward the beginning of this nightmare, Northup tells another fellow who’s trying to figure out how to survive, “I don’t want to survive. I want to live.” It’s not long, however, before he realizes survival is his only choice.

I agree with the general sentiments of the film critics, most of whom have highly praised 12 Years. One representative sampling is from Manohla Dargis, New York Times: “The genius of ’12 Years a Slave’ is its insistence on banal evil, and on terror, that seeped into souls, bound bodies and reaped an enduring, terrible price.”

You can see the film trailer below:

Of the questions that haunted me after seeing the film, the one I want to address here: What are the psychological effects of slavery on African Americans to this day?

Dr. Joy DeGruy, a social work researcher and professor, wrote about this in her highly praised Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing (2005). She notes that although many in slavery likely experienced PTSD, it’s unlikely that they received appropriate help. Certain adaptive traits were then passed to the next generation, and so on. Moreover, continuing into the present, the African American community has also had to endure newer traumas and their effects.

Her theory in her words is that Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome, or P.T.S.S., is:

…a condition that exists as a consequence of multigenerational oppression of Africans and their descendants resulting from centuries of chattel slavery. A form of slavery which was predicated on the belief that African Americans were inherently/genetically inferior to whites. This was then followed by institutionalized racism which continues to perpetuate injury.

Accordingly, individuals frequently suffer from the following:

  • Vacant Esteem–includes hopelessness, depression, and a self-destructive outlook.
  • Marked Propensity for Anger and Violence–includes extreme feelings of suspicion.
  • Racist Socialization and internalized racism–with learned helplessness, literacy deprivation, distorted self-concept; also, antipathy or aversion for members of one’s own cultural/ethnic group, the mores/customs associated with one’s heritage, and physical characteristics of one’s cultural/ethnic group.

In addition, though, DeGruy also points out the resilience and strengths the African American community has developed, which she relates in an Essence article:

We are a strong people who survived the Middle Passage, and then later on withstood centuries of violent oppression. In the face of all that, we still retained family, community, and a strong sense of spirituality. We know how to take care of people, to take care of one another. But most important, we have maintained our humanity in that we have not, as a group, become barbaric toward those who committed the worst atrocities against us.

For further info, check out video clips of her talks on P.T.S.S. available on YouTube.