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True Story Is Inspiration for Uplifting Movie <i>Antwone Fisher</i> - 2003-01-12

As a young man in the U.S. Navy, Antwone Fisher has a volatile temper that threatens to end his military career. Sent for psychiatric evaluation as a first step toward being kicked out of the service, he meets a doctor who helps him turn his life around; but it isn't easy.

"Let me lay this out for you son: this is how many cases I have, okay? I don't have time to waste. I get three sessions only to make an 'eval' and make a recommedation to your commanding officer. You know he wants to throw you out of the Navy, don't you? Now you can sit here and not talk to me if you want to, but our sessions don't begin until you begin talking to me."
"I've got nothing to say."
"Okay, we'll sit until you do. I have a whole lot of work to catch up on. We can sit here every day until the day I retire. It doesn't matter to me."
"It doesn't matter to me, either."
"All righty."

Gradually, Dr. Davenport [played by director Denzel Washington] breaks through Antwone's tough outer shell to discover the terrible secrets of his childhood: born in a prison hospital ward, abandoned by his mother, never knowing his father and abused [mentally and physically] by a child welfare system that lets him fall through the cracks without a safety net.

Antwone Fisher is a real person who was working as a studio guard when, in one of those twists of fate that seems to happen regularly in the movies, but so rarely in real life, his story came to the attention of a producer who set him up with an office and helped him write a script. And it gets better. After acting in more than 30 films, Academy Award winner Denzel Washington was looking for a script to make as his feature film directing debut when he discovered Antwone Fisher.

"Antwone has been through a lot already and I promised him that I would take good care of him," he says. "Every morning in the trailer that was my prayer; I said 'God, don't let me mess up this boy's life. Just take good care of him'"

For the title role, Washington picked young newcomer Derek Luke who had never before acted in a film; and, ironically, knew the real Antwone Fisher from the time Luke worked as a clerk at the studio gift shop. "I thought I had the pleasure of imitating a man that I knew, but when I read the script, I didn't know him. I didn't know the kid. The young man, Antwone, who made the man today. so I was really tossed. I had to reach and dig in the script to find out who this guy was," he says.

"Are you finished?"
"I thought was just getting started."
"Let me tell you something, son. It may have slipped your mind, but you are addressing a superior officer, do you understand me?"
"Yes sir, I slipped up."
"You'd better believe you did"
"No sir, I mean I slipped up when I talked to you."
"Well, what do I do, commander? I don't know what to do."

Washington says he really enjoyed directing the young actor, but he had a harder time with one screen veteran: himself. "The acting and directing was not something I would like to try again. Part of the reason I was in the film was because the studio wanted me in there and we got a little more money in the budget. That was more difficult because I had these young actors, especially working with Derek," he says. "I wanted to keep my eye on him and help out, but I also had to jump in and be in the film, then go back and look at myself on the video, which I'm not used to doing, keep an eye on him. That was kind of tough."

Antwone Fisher is the story of a black American, but Denzel Washington believes that his own heritage is not what made a difference in telling the story. "I think anyone could have directed the film; I don't think it has to be a black person to direct this particular story. I really do feel it's a universal story," he says. "There are certain cultural things, I guess, that we bring to it and that maybe I might know more about than the next person; but not necessarily. I think it's a universal film."

"This is my time. It doesn't matter what you tried to do. You couldn't destroy me. I'm still standing. I'm still strong."

Antwone Fisher also features Joy Bryant as the young woman who helps Antwone discover his emotions. Salli Richardson plays psychiatrist Davenport's wife who understands the bond that's growing is more like father-and-son than a doctor-patient relationship; and Viola Davis portrays the mother who left Antwone Fisher behind.