antwone fisher (2002)


director: denzel washington

derek luke, joy bryant, denzel washington

There's something going on in Denzel Washington's debut feature, Antwone Fisher, that transcends the blatantly tear-jerking, uplifting story. Based on the true story of a troubled young man who rediscovers his lost family, it's plainly manipulative in the kind of shameless way that's already invited accusations of being "Oprah-fied".

In spite of all of this, the film works, and its emotional impact won't be diminished simply being so undisguised. Probably because it was directed by an actor, the performances, especially a magnificent turn by newcomer Derek Luke as Antwone, are more than merely credible.

Antwone is a role most actors would kill for. Abandoned and abused as a boy, he ends up in the Navy, a perfect candidate for officer's school except for a bad attitude and a fierce temper. Sent for councilling with the base psychiatrist, played by Washington, he slowly confronts his nightmarish childhood and journeys back to his hometown to find the family he never knew.

Luke, with the singular license given to unknown actors, sinks into the role, positively aching with Antwone's embattled and repressed hurt, his wounded pride at surviving such hopeless beginnings. When the great payoff comes - and it comes with all the subtlety and reserve of a symphonic finale crossed with the final minutes of a championship game - you're moved, if only because Luke has made you care so deeply about Antwone's fate.

A faintly gratuitous subplot involving Washington and his wife suffers by comparison. Where, as a director, he's willing to let Luke do all the work of showing Antwone's progress, he undersells his secondary story with the first blunder of scriptwriting - telling instead of showing.