ANTWONE FISHER (Denzel Washington, 2002)

In a piece about one of Denzel Washington’s few meritorious films, I spoke of the “cancerous ineptitude” of his acting, and indeed Washington consistently is a dreadful actor, and pretty much always for the same reason: in addition to his lack of acting ability, his incapacity to get down into the mental muck of a character that lies beneath the tidy surface that he prefers to skim across. Washington remains what he was on TV’s St. Elsewhere: a girlishly pretty face with little or nothing going on underneath. He is, perhaps, the worst American film actor since Troy Donahue, and also the smarmiest.

Now he is a director, too. Antwone Fisher is his maiden effort in this regard. I’m not going to get much into the plot, of which (as is the case with most Hollywood films nowadays) there is way too much. Briefly, Antwone Fisher, a sailor, is a violent punk with a distressing past that a naval psychiatrist (Washington, at his most insensible) draws out from him and encourages him to address. At the same time, the young patient’s “courageous” example inspires the psychiatrist to address problems in his marriage. If it were all any sillier, it would be Good Will Hunting (1997), which the film generously ransacks until its late foray into territory akin to that of Alfred Hitchcock’s Marnie (1964), when the boy locates and confronts the mother who long ago abandoned him. Davenport, the psychiatrist, had told Fisher to ask questions, but the only “questions” that Fisher has are rhetorical and judgmental ones. Verbally, he bashes this woman, and the film obscenely supports him in this, apparently missing the point that she also may have a story to tell, one as much overloaded with black hardship as Fisher’s. To mask this gaping failure of humanity, the film proceeds to Fisher’s mass reconciliation with every biological family member of his except his mother—a scene incredibly cheapened, additionally, by its echoes of a dream of Fisher’s with which the film opens.

This is a sentimental and disgusting piece of work purportedly based somewhat on the life of a malcontent by the name of Antwone Fisher, who is credited with the film’s self-serving script.

For a few years, there have been a couple of things about Washington I’ve wanted to get off my chest, and this is the moment, I feel, because the utter lack of character in Washington that these matters expose is of a piece with the sort of morally odious film he has concocted here. One has to do with a film in which Washington starred: Carl Franklin’s Devil in a Blue Dress (1995), a resonant postwar film noir based on Walter Mosley’s novel. Washington, at his best as detective Easy Rawlins, was nevertheless (much) bettered by Don Cheadle’s hot-tempered Mouse Alexander and Jennifer Beals’s deliriously ambiguous Daphne Monet. When in 1996 Cheadle wasn’t Oscar-nominated for this role, something of a firestorm broke out regarding the Academy’s tendency to overlook African-American achievement. Washington, who had won an Oscar for allowing his character to be stripped and whipped in the postcard Civil War drama Glory (Edward Zwick, 1989), weighed in, but not with support for his fellow African-American actors, whom Washington chided, describing them, that year, as undeserving of nominations. Who knows what Washington intended; perhaps he merely meant to encourage black actors to try harder. However, his remarks carried an imperious tone, and it truly seemed that Washington was doing the unconscionable, to wit, playing nice with the Academy to increase his own chances of winning another Oscar in the near future. Especially since Cheadle outshone him in a high-profile film, Washington wasn’t immune, either, to the charge of jealousy, although, as usual, he appeared lofty, superior, smug, self-satisfied. By way of a footnote, it occurs to me that, while I’ve never seen Washington give a good performance, I have never seen Cheadle give a bad one.

The other burden I wish to toss off has to do with The Hurricane (Norman Jewison, 1999), a sentimental piece of tripe about Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, whose boxing career was cut short when he was convicted of triple murder. Carter’s eventual legal “exoneration” actually didn’t address the issue of his guilt or innocence, and most reporters who covered the crime insist on Carter’s guilt. Taking his cue from Carter’s autobiography, written in prison, Washington portrayed Carter unambiguously as an innocent man victimized by a racist system. This invited a firestorm of protest. What sours and sickens me about all this is that the filmmakers might have ventured into any American prison and found an innocent “nobody” whose incarceration was indeed the result of entrenched and institutionalized racism. Washington, to be sure, wasn’t one of the filmmakers, but his performance gave uncomplicated cover to their cynical choice and tack. The controversy that the film encouraged over its canonization of a sports figure who is likely a beast buried an important message, and Washington’s participation in such a project seems all too typical of him. He is a man without a conscience or a soul.

This is without doubt the man who was drawn to Antwone Fisher’s “plight” and who, instead of making an honest film about the worthless soul that Fisher apparently is, made one that flatters him to the finish. In this way, Antwone Fisher is as infuriatingly uncritical as Oliver Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July (1989), which at least benefits from Stone’s clear and immaculate images. (Not that Washington has an altogether bad eye himself, which his color cinematographer, the great Philippe Rousselot, does much to enhance.) Where Stone’s film utterly fails, both morally and intellectually, is in its abdication of responsibility to cast a critical eye on Ron Kovic, the whining malcontent whose story the film purports to show. Apparently, Stone “doesn’t get it.” In canonizing Kovic rather than probing his human defects, Stone obscures what ought to have been the film’s powerful message regarding governmental deception on matters of life and death. Stone has deluded himself into believing that by not examining Kovic and Kovic’s complex motives for turning from super patriot to protester he is strengthening the film’s message. Directorial deception hardly lends a film credibility when the director is attempting to spotlight deception in other quarters! Antwone Fisher repeats this sort of moral murkiness, self-delusion and sentimental canonization of a complex, plainly disturbed and unwholesome human being.

Derek Luke (Independent Spirit Award, best actor), who plays Fisher, is not the problem. He did what the script and Washington directed him to do. He is a gifted young actor. By far, though, the best performance comes from Viola Davis as Fisher’s mother. In her brief role, she is heartbreaking, and momentarily she brings the film to emotional life. There’s also a passage detailing a date between Fisher and his supportive girlfriend that suggests that Washington has a keen and sweet recollection of his long-ago dating days. Indeed, Fisher’s relationship with this girl, Cheryl (Joy Bryant), who is also in the Navy, generates the film’s most appealing moments.

But these are peripheral. Next time, Washington should choose instead an honest and compassionate path, and by all means he should cast good actors again, keeping himself behind the camera.

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