Denzel Washington’s first film as director tells the true story of Antwone Fisher (Derek Luke), a young Sailor in the United States Navy. Following several violent outbursts he is disciplined and sent for compulsory sessions with Navy psychologist Lt. Commander Davenport (Denzel Washington). Initially uncompliant, Antwone eventually opens up and reveals a story of hardship and abuse as a child. While learning to face his demons he also learns how to love, with the help of female sailor Cheryl (Joy Bryant). And, of course, in Davenport, Antwone finds the father he never had and Davenport finds the son he always wanted.
Denzel Washington has worked with some great contemporary directors – Jonathan Demme, Richard Attenborough and, perhaps most notably, Spike Lee – and given his acclaim as a powerful actor and last year’s Oscar, it was only a matter of time before he would direct his own film. It is, however, often a bad idea when great actors decide that their talents will naturally cross the divide into directing, and intriguingly it is generally a move made by ego-driven actors rather than actresses (we wait to pass judgement on Kevin Spacey’s forthcoming Beyond the Sea).
Yet the studios seem quite willing to fund these projects, and Washington’s film certainly doesn’t look like it was made on a tight budget. In fact, everything about it screams "Hollywood" so loudly it makes your ears hurt. The colours are bright and glossy (even during the moments of supposed hard-hitting realism), and the camera glides and swoops with a smoothness that takes any edge off the story. The film’s classical score sounds as if it comes straight out of a ‘How to Write Film Music for Hollywood’ manual, mercilessly trying to squeeze emotion out of almost every moment in the film. Then there are the morals of the film, which tell us that happiness is impossible unless you come from a stable and secure family background. And never forget that this is a man’s world – Denzel’s wife seems to just hang round the house all day looking pretty and flicking through photograph albums while her husband is out doing real work. Antwone’s girlfriend is in the Navy, but she works in a bookstore and doesn’t appear to go near any ships – and in her spare time she likes to hang around looking pretty.
Antwone Fisher’s life story is well worthy of a cinematic treatment – and this is what makes the film so infuriating. It is a real story of poverty and shocking abuse: he was born in a women’s prison after the death of his father, and raised as an orphan under the care of a physically violent woman and her sexually abusive sister. Yet his personal story of triumph over adversity is so weighed down by a leaden directorial hand and Hollywood ‘worthiness’ as to make it becomes completely unaffecting. Strangely, Washington doesn’t seem to think Antwone’s tragic upbringing is enough to win audience sympathy, so Antwone’s ability to draw and write ‘poetry’ are stressed to make him seem a better man. Similarly, when he finds his real mother, he tells her of these skills as well as his ability to speak two different languages, as if these things in themselves are proof of a man’s worth. Surely the fact that he is her son should be enough?
The conservative politics of the film are hidden under a thin veil of social realism: the latter half could be a Republican propaganda film for the importance of the extended family network. Spike Lee has spoken out in support of his star, saying of its poor opening week takings in America: ‘It did okay but it should have done better. Black people should have come out and supported that film’. But this film is more about one individual’s struggle than it is about racial struggle, and Lee has obviously chosen to ignore the film’s aesthetic stodginess and Reaganite values. It makes Forrest Gump seem like gritty realism.