Antwone Fisher written by and about--you guessed it--real-life security guard-turned-author/screenwriter Antwone Fisher starts off well with a gorgeous dream sequence featuring a young boy at a family feast whose attendees span generations of African-American history. Then Antwone (Derek Luke) wakes up. We soon learn that the awestruck little boy at the feast is in fact a very angry young sailor aboard a Navy ship. Throughout the plodding first act of the film Antwone fights violently with his shipmates until he's required to undergo a three-session psychiatric evaluation under the care of Jerome Davenport (Denzel Washington). Antwone at first refuses to discuss his past during their sessions but he soon (perhaps too soon for believability) begins to open up. Once his expiation begins the slow pace of the first act gives way to a tidal wave of suffering victimhood in the second act as we're told the young man's story of abuse neglect and sorrow at the hands of an uncaring foster mother (Novella Nelson). Telling his story combined with his budding love for Cheryl (Joy Bryant) leads Antwone to search for his biological parents which makes up the bulk of act three. On this point the film deviates somewhat from the real-life drama; according to the production notes Fisher had left the Navy and was working as a security guard for Sony Pictures Studios in L.A. when he decided to find his biological family. To get time off from the job he'd held for only two months he told the whole story to his boss who told it to someone else who told another person until finally it got through to the right people and Antwone Fisher the movie was born.
Antwone Fisher gives the author his first screenwriting credit and it's also the first leading role for relative newcomers Luke and Bryant. Interestingly enough Luke was at work in the Sony Pictures gift shop talking with his old friend Fisher when Washington delivered the news (in person!) that he'd been cast in the leading role. Despite his lack of experience Luke gives a strong if occasionally stilted performance in a role that could easily have become melodramatic. (On occasion however Luke simply can't overcome the over-the-top emotional manipulations written into the script; especially noteworthy is his recitation of the poem "Who Will Cry for the Little Boy " the title work in Fisher's forthcoming collection of poetry.) Model-turned-actress Bryant's gentle delivery provides a foil for Luke's simmering anger; Salli Richardson as Davenport's wife Berta taps into the neglected-wife syndrome adequately and Nelson is suitably nasty as the evil foster mother. But the big story in Antwone Fisher is of course Denzel who directs costars and produces. Unfortunately the Oscar winner finds himself in John Q territory with this picture--once again working to lift up the underdog and make the world a better place yada yada. Not that there's anything wrong with that in theory but in this case it makes for an unnecessarily draining film with an unnecessarily preachy message.
For reasons I can't quite fathom some critics are already touting Antwone Fisher as a potential Oscar contender for Best Picture with Washington's first-time directing effort in the running for Best Director honors. If organizations gave out prizes for intentions I'd say those critics were right. Washington and his production crew made a lot of right decisions: they shot on location in Fisher's hometown of Cleveland Ohio; they hired a largely local crew there and renovated and/or reinforced the tenements and houses where they shot. They used fresh faces and gave opportunities that rarely come along for young actors in Hollywood. They even chose an admirable story with a compelling message: if Antwone can make it through his intensely troubled past so can other kids. The thing is the best-laid plans sometimes go awry when filmmakers and writers attempt to embellish an already poignant and painful story with dialogue that feels like it was specifically crafted to elicit sympathy from viewers. Ultimately Antwone Fisher's story is compelling enough as a straightforward narrative; it doesn't need a deluge of tear-jerking poetry recitations and heartfelt self-improvement speeches to be inspirational.