Antwone Fisher Movie Essay

Antwone Fisher is a good sailor but he has a hair-trigger temper, and it lands him in the office of the base psychiatrist, Dr. Jerome Davenport. He refuses to talk. Davenport says he can wait. 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: "I understand you like to fight." "That's the only way some people learn." "But you pay the price for teaching them." This conversation will continue, in one form or another, until Fisher (Derek Luke) has returned to the origin of his troubles, and Davenport (Denzel Washington) has made some discoveries as well. "Antwone Fisher," based on the true story of the man who wrote the screenplay, is a film that begins with the everyday lives of naval personnel in San Diego and ends with scenes so true and heartbreaking that tears welled up in my eyes both times I saw the film.


I do not cry easily at the movies; years can go past without tears. I have noticed that when I am deeply affected emotionally, it is not by sadness so much as by goodness. Antwone Fisher has a confrontation with his past, and a speech to the mother who abandoned him, and a reunion with his family, that create great, heartbreaking, joyous moments.

The story behind the film is extraordinary. Fisher was a security guard at the Sony studio in Hollywood when his screenplay came to the attention of the producers. Denzel Washington was so impressed he chose it for his directorial debut. The newcomer Derek Luke, cast in the crucial central role after dozens of more experienced actors had been auditioned, turned out to be a friend of Antwone's; he didn't tell that to the filmmakers because he thought it would hurt his chances. The film is based on truth but some characters and events have been dramatized, we are told at the end. That is the case with every "true story." The film opens with a dream image that will resonate through the film: Antwone, as a child, is welcomed to a dinner table by all the members of his family, past and present. He awakens from his dream to the different reality of life on board an aircraft carrier. He will eventually tell Davenport that his father was murdered two months before he was born, that his mother was in prison at the time and abandoned him, and that he was raised in a cruel foster home. Another blow came when his closest childhood friend was killed in a robbery. Antwone, who is constitutionally incapable of crime, considers that an abandonment, too.

As Antwone's weekly sessions continue, he meets another young sailor, Cheryl Smolley (Joy Bryant). He is shy around her, asks Davenport for tips on dating, keeps it a secret that he is still a virgin. In a time when movie romances end in bed within a scene or two, their relationship is sweet and innocent. He is troubled, he even gets in another fight, but she sees that he has a good heart and she believes in him.

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. At first Fisher resists these doctor's orders, but finally, with Cheryl's help, he flies back. And that is where the preparation of the early scenes pays off in confrontations of extraordinary power.

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. Earlier this year, Davis appeared as the maid in "Far from Heaven" and as the space-station psychiatrist in "Solaris." Now this performance. It is hard to believe it is the same actress. She hardly says a word, as Antwone spills out his heart in an emotionally shattering speech.

Antwone's story is counterpointed with the story of Dr. Davenport and his wife, Berta (Salli Richardson). There are issues in their past, too, and in a sense Davenport and Fisher are in therapy together. There is a sense of anticlimax when Davenport has his last heartfelt talk with Antwone, because the film has reached its emotional climax in Ohio and there is nowhere else we want it to take us. But the relationship between the two men is handled by Washington, as the director, with close and caring attention. Hard to believe Derek Luke is a newcomer; easy to believe why Washington decided he was the right actor to play Antwone Fisher.


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Antwone Fisher is a story about a young man and his life as he grows from an abandoned child to a young petty officer in the Navy. But the crux of the story centers on his reactions to all of the negative events of his life. It is based a true story and has some reoccurring themes throughout. However, despite these reoccurrences, the messages are subtle and this where the soul of the story resides.

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An Analysis of Antwone Fisher

The movie Antwone Fisher is a personal narrative about a young African-American man’s struggle with his past. The main character is Antwone Fisher, a Navy Petty Officer whose father was killed two months before his birth and mother abandoned him shortly after his birth. Antwone is raised in an abusive foster home by Rev. Tate and his wife Ms. Tate. After an argument with Ms. Tate, Antwone is kicked out of the foster home and forced into a life of homelessness as a teenager for a short period of time and then joins the Navy. Once aboard ship, he is directly involved in a fight and is sent to see a Navy psychiatrist, Dr. Jerome Davenport. Antwone’s reluctance to talk to Dr. Davenport during the initial visit, results in Dr. Davenport informing Antwone that his first session doesn’t start until he begins to talk and that there will only be a total of three sessions. Eventually, the two develop a working relationship that evolves into something more meaningful as Antwone begins to open up and talk about his past. The movie begins with Antwone dreaming of himself as a young boy, standing out in a field all alone facing a barn. He is greeted by a man who takes his hand and leads him into the barn filled with his all of his ancestors standing around a long table.

The table is covered with food and as Antwone is lead to the head of the table, he takes a seat. A plate of pancakes is placed before him. Abruptly, the sound of a cow bell followed by the sound of a gunshot awakens Antwone out of his dream and he realizes he is actually lying in his bunk aboard ship. This dream is significant for a couple of reasons. The fact that Antwone is surrounded by all of his ancestors implies how much Antwone wants to have a sense of belonging and acceptance within the context of a family. Taking a seat at the head of the table represents the desire to feel proud about his family, as opposed to shame about the lack of his familial upbringing. This dream is not the only incident of its kind, as Antwone’s past is played out through a series of recollections that gives the viewer insight into whom Antwone Fisher is and why he behaves the way he does. After awakening from the dream, Antwone heads to the ship’s bathroom to groom himself for the day ahead. While Fisher wipes his face, a Caucasian shipmate asks “Is there something on your face.” Fisher ignites into a rage, punching and choking him.

This incident aboard ship is another indication of the anger that resides within Fisher. More importantly, understanding why this anger is present is central to understanding the character. Through his visits with Dr. Davenport, Antwone slowly begins to recount his past; including instances of abuse and neglect he suffered at the hands of Miss. Tate while growing up. In the first session, which does not begin until Antwone decides to talk, he tells Dr. Davenport about how his mother failed to come claim him after her release from prison and Antwone spends the first two years of his life in an orphanage. Dr. Davenport then asks the question, “How does this make you feel.” Antwone exclaims, “Rainy days.” “Kids expect it to rain sometimes but for one kid it rained too much.” This is a subtle but important metaphor that Antwone uses to describe how he felt as a child; like a kid who wants to go out and play but can’t because of “rainy days.”

Again in this case, the subtlety in what is not being said by the client is just as important as what is being said. This description infers the condition of someone who, because of circumstances not of his own making and beyond his control is being restrained from activity. It infers a lack of freedom. During Antwone’s second session, he describes how Miss. Tate psychologically abuses him and his foster brothers, Keith, whom Antwone describes as being half white and Dwight. He tells Dr. Davenport how Miss. Tate beat them and constantly called them “nigger”, although she herself was black. Fisher goes on to tell Dr. Davenport about how she often pitted one child against another and told the darker-skinned Dwight and Antwone that they were not as good as the lighter-skinned Keith, although neither of them escaped being called “nigger”.

Then Dr. Davenport asks Antwone if Miss. Tate was ever nice to them. Antwone says yes, and refers to those times when she was nice to them as “chummy times”. He goes on to say that he could tell what kind of day it would be when he awoke by the scent in the air. If the smell of grits and eggs or wet pavement was in the air, he had to watch out the entire day, but if the smell of pancakes was in the air, it was going to be a good day. This symbolism is referenced in the first scene of the movie during Antwone’s dream. In the dream, when he takes a seat at the head of the table, a plate of pancakes is placed before him.

The pancakes represent “chummy times”. These times represent the periods when Antwone felt free from the persistent harassment and scolding of Miss. Tate. When asked if Miss. Tate cooked pancakes often, Antwone replies, No sir. The second session ends on this note. The third session begins with Antwone telling Dr. Davenport about his dream the night before. More importantly, he tells Dr. Davenport about the confrontation with Miss. Tate that led to him being kicked out of the Tate home. The confrontation culminates in Antwone taking the same shoe from Miss Tate that she was trying to beat him with. Antwone described the feeling of power during this moment. He said, “It felt like I won a prize” (Fisher, 2002). Since birth Antwone Fisher never had control over his own life. The “prize” Antwone is describing is the feeling of being in control over his life for the first time. Dr. Davenport gives Antwone a book called The Slave Community, and explains that what he went through with the Tates was in part due to result of the treatment that slaves received from their masters during slavery and then is passed on to the slave’s children, generation to generation right on down to the Tates.

This too is an important aspect of the counseling relationship between the two, because although it does not justify, at least it explains some of the behavior of the Tates, which might help Antwone to understand some of what he has gone through. Dr. Davenport explains that we all have choices and it is up to each individual to make the right choices. He goes on to say that despite the fact that Antwone has the right to be angry, it is up to him to channel that energy constructively. He tells Antwone to use that energy to benefit himself. Dr. Davenport then informs Antwone that this completes their third session and that he will recommend that Antwone be given a second chance to remain in the Navy. As Antwone leaves Dr. Davenport’s office the impression is one full of anxiety as Antwone rushes out of the office. However, after experiencing another incident aboard the ship, where Antwone’s anger nearly embroils him in a fight, he returns to the waiting area of Dr. Davenport’s office and is the source of a scene where he gets the undivided attention and angst of Dr. Davenport. Antwone explains that he feels lost and doesn’t know what to do and walks out of the office, leaving Dr. Davenport speechless and in thought.

After some consideration Dr. Davenport contacts Antwone aboard his ship and informs him that if he is willing, they can continue their sessions after working hours. It is from these sessions that the therapeutic relationship changes into almost a father /son relationship. Apparently, Dr. Davenport made the decision to cross the therapist/client boundary in order to help Antwone. I believe that this was a conscious choice on behalf of Dr. Davenport despite the risks involved. Despite the attempt by Dr. Davenport to modify Antwone’s behavior, he is involved in yet another fight while on liberty, and is detained by the proper authorities. When Dr. Davenport is notified, he goes to see Antwone to discuss what happened. After a brief explanation, Antwone tells the doctor about how he was sexually abused repeatedly by a baby sitter as a boy. Antwone would seek refuge at his best friend Jesse’s house. Jesse was the only person that Antwone ever told about the sexual abuse until Dr. Davenport. It is important to note here what caused Antwone to react violently this time.

Antwone has trigger points that cause him to dissonance and the only way he knows how to handle this dissonance within him is to react the way he does. These trigger points are all issues from his past. Unresolved issues that he has yet to deal with and the shame that goes along with those issues. The lack of a family structure and abandonment issues, the racial issues and self-hatred, the lack of being in control of his life, and the sexual abuse are all points of contention within Antwone Fisher that cause him to want to fight the source of the dissonance at that particular time. Anything that can remind him of his shameful past can trigger an episode. After a Thanksgiving Day invite by Dr. Davenport, Antwone is again reminded of his “inadequacy” when Dr. Davenport’s father innocently asks the question, “I bet you miss your mother’s holiday cooking. Don’t you” (Fisher, 2002). Instead of reacting with anger Antwone quietly excuses himself from the table, and retreats into another room.

This nonviolent reaction represents growth on Antwone’s part. Shortly thereafter he is joined by Dr. Davenport. Antwone hands him a poem that he wrote. After reading the poem Dr. Davenport advises Antwone about how important it is that he locate his biological family. Antwone responds with, “Why do I need my family when I got you doc” (Fisher, 2002). It is at this point when Dr. Davenport realizes that the risk he took to allow Antwone to breach the client/therapist relationship may have unintended consequences that he failed to consider. Antwone has become comfortable in knowing and meeting Dr. Davenport’s family, but this is not what he needs to keep growing into the person he needs to become. To keep growing into that person, Antwone needs to seek out his own biological family so that all of the unanswered questions can be answered. Dr. Davenport realizes this now and knows what he must do. Dr. Davenport meets Antwone aboard the ship to tell him that the time has come to end their sessions.

Breaking the news to Antwone results in him feeling abandoned all over again and his anger rises to the surface once more. This time there is a constructive purpose, as his anger yields the recollection of what happened to his childhood best friend, Jesse. Antwone tells the story of how Jesse was shot and killed trying to rob a neighborhood store. Antwone witnessed the entire ordeal and remembers how he heard the cow bell ringing above the store door after seeing his best friend shot dead on the floor. Again this is symbolism from the first scene in the movie where Antwone is awakened out of his dream by the sound of a gunshot and the ringing of cow bells. These sounds are auditory reminders of that incident and the day that his best friend “abandoned” him. Dr. Davenport hugs Antwone and tells him to contact him once he finds his family to tell him all about it. From this point the stage is set for Antwone to locate his biological family. Antwone takes leave from the Navy and travels to his hometown Cleveland, Ohio, to find his family. On the day he arrives it is raining.

The trip turns out to be a first on several fronts as Antwone loses his virginity, confronts Miss Tate and the woman who sexually abused him as a child. He also receives an important piece of information, the name of his father, which he never knew. Using the area phone book Antwone uses this information to track down some possible relatives and sets up a meeting the next day. On the following day it is raining again as Antwone meets his prospective aunt and uncle and is taken to meet his mother, whom he has not seen since birth. Upon arrival Antwone is timid and walks up to his mother’s place to meet her. After entering, he meets his mother, who reacts with shock after seeing her first born son. Antwone’s first question is “Why did you never come for me (Fisher, 2002). He asks several questions and then proceeds to tell his mother about his life and telling her how he has longed for her for many years. He wants his mother to know what kind of person he has become.

That he is a good person and a good man. He kisses her on the cheek as if to say “I forgive you”, and walks out of the apartment. After returning to his aunt’s house he is greeted by many members of his newly found family and introductions ensue. Then he is lead to two doors that open to reveal the elders of his family, sitting at a banquet table. On the table lies a feast, in celebration of his homecoming, including pancakes. Antwone Fisher sits down at the end of the banquet table and is given an approval by the eldest elder and once again it is what is not said during this moment that carries the most weight.

The rest of the family rushes in to begin the feast. After returning to the Naval base Antwone waits outside Dr. Davenport’s office and when Dr. Davenport comes out, Antwone tells him that he has met his family and thanks him for his influence. Alternately, Dr. Davenport thanks Antwone for his effect on his life also. The Antwone Fisher story is about confronting the past, and learning from the present. It is a story about the power of relationships and second chances. Ultimately, it is the story about the self-determination of a young man, and his journey from shame and brokenness to forgiveness and wholeness. Let the church say Amen.

Fisher A 2002 Antwone FisherFisher, A. (2002). Antwone Fisher [Motion Picture]. : Twentieth Century Fox.


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