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.