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'Antwone Fisher' and the call of Black healing in America

20 years after its release, a classic Black biopic gets a second look and analysis from Efran Menny.

(20th Century Fox)

Given that my teenage years were filled with significant adverse experiences, I find myself sympathizing with a lot of films that portray similar situations. With my degrees and a spectrum of practice in clinical and macro settings in social work, I find myself conducting genograms, systems theory, and developing my own interventions to best help these fictional characters reach optimal well-being. I did this with the emotion-heavy “Precious,” the gritty 90s coming-of-age Hughes Brothers drama “Menace II Society”, and the distinguished film adaptation of James Baldwin’s “If Beale Street Could Talk.”

Recently, I performed this type of client analysis on “Antwone Fisher,” a lesser-known film released in 2002. I had heard about it in high school, college, and by word of mouth but never gave it a chance. After hearing my wife elevate the film to cinematic greatness for the umpteenth time in our nearly 8-year marriage, I decided to stop procrastinating and watch.

At first, I devoted an undivided 20 minutes to the movie. It had me in a spellbound fixation of intrigue. Instead of putting the film off for another day, I knew I had to finish it in one sitting later that evening.

“Fisher” was Denzel Washington’s directorial debut and tells the true story of Antwone Fisher (played by Derek Luke), a young adult in the Navy that can’t control his anger and outbursts while serving. As a result of his continual reprimands, he is assigned to psychiatrist Dr. James Davenport (Washington) for therapy. Reluctant at first, Fisher slowly confides in Davenport about the severe adverse trauma of his youth. By seeing Davenport as a warm and compassionate caregiver, Fisher is able to unravel his traumatic past and develop character-building skills that help him reach self-actualization.

Not only are the portrayals convincing, but the film also highlights intense issues that are hidden in familial life within the Black community, like sexual predators and sexual abuse. It also touches on familiar issues like the incarceration of a family member. I was thankful that the film's protagonist, Antwone Fisher, experiences a true metamorphosis that propels him to be emotionally intelligent and resilient. Moreover, throughout this transformational journey, Fisher provides a crucial commentary that is enriching to the Black community.

One of the joys of the film has to do with the value of mentorship. Initially, when Fisher was sent to Davenport’s office, he had a stubborn disposition. Week after week he would show up but not engage with the services available. But one week, he decided to take Davenport up on his repeated offers. With his genuine and welcoming presence, Davenport asked light questions that got Fisher to open up.

This must have astonished Antwone. Here was an adult professional—a Black male leader at that—being empathetic to his unique journey of hurt. This ignited his willingness to trust in his psychiatrist. Only able to see Fisher for three sessions, Fisher starts to understand that his sessions are helping him make sense of his trauma but soon gets into another altercation. Consequently, he again has to be under Davenport’s guidance, which he appreciates.

Through more focused therapy and investments outside of the clinical setting, the two foster a path of mutual growth. Fisher becomes confident enough to find his birth mother that has not neglected him, while Davenport receives an understanding of how to revive his lukewarm marriage and become a better spouse.

Access to warm, nurturing, and concerned adults in whom you can find guidance and strength has unparalleled value. Whether it be in employment or in education and daily life, mentoring is a beneficial intervention that can play a significant role in supporting the whole person to thrive and prevent negative behaviors.

With this empirical basis, it’s incumbent that the Black community recognize the necessity of reaching out to someone who could benefit from support. We see the issues plaguing our community such as gun violence, behavioral or emotional concerns, and single-parent households. However, there are far too many faith leaders, entrepreneurs, college-educated professionals, and working-class adults unwilling or unready to seize on the value of mentorship. If we all decided to invest our time, attention, and even resources into others that could use a helping hand, we could reshape Black America in a major way.

However, our biggest excuse is our individuality. It makes us comfortable in our apathy for our fellow neighbor’s condition. Instead of instilling a sense of self-esteem and positive racial identity, many may see the responsibility of mentorship as too demanding. “Antwone Fisher” is subversive to our culture’s notion of independence and stresses a message of interdependence for Black Americans. In their client-worker relationship, the fate of Fisher and Washington is intertwined. Far from being two individuals, two generations of Black men are linked together so that a reciprocal relationship is formed. Simply put, when intergenerational engagement happens, we can effect flourishing, unified economic and social standing.

Through the bond he develops with Davenport, Fisher rises to his full potential—a sort of resurrection moment. Twice towards the end of the film, we encounter two life-changing victories he experienced.

When Fisher tracks down his birth mother, he also goes to his former guardians, who raised him in a household of intense sexual, physical, and emotional abuse. When he confronts his former caregivers with bold conviction and newfound self-dignity, Fisher declares, “It don't matter what you tried to do. You couldn't destroy me! I'm still standing! I'm still strong! And I always will be.” In this instance, he is reborn from a state of victimization and defeat to unwavering courage. With this fearless tenacity, his outlook for growth seems invincible.

At the end of the film, Fisher meets Davenport to express appreciation for his help in his self-discovery, but Davenport expresses gratitude to Fisher for his triumph over adversity.

“You've beaten everybody who was beating you,” he tells him.

When he said this, I thought of the prophetic words St. Paul used to describe the resurrection of Jesus conquering death:

“O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?”
(1 Corinthians 15:55-57, NLT)

To see Fisher trample over the setbacks in his life is a testament to the power of resilience. When all measures, statistics, and even his family crushed his drive, he tapped into a hidden source of growth. Although he was once dead by the standards of the world, he rose to new life with a positive self-concept and self-image. By shattering the stronghold of immeasurable evil against him, Fisher portrays an undeniable Christ-like figure.

This “new Adam” can be a model for Black men to shatter the negative cultural standards of manhood and help them find essential mental health treatment. Findings suggest that only 26.4% of Black men aged 18 to 44 that experience daily anxiety and or depression seek services. In Antwone’s example, we see the damage of building pressure that goes unchecked. Rage, outbursts, and wearing the facade that everything is OK is the “normal” appearance. As a result, Black men are silently suffering when it comes to practicing self-advocacy for their multifaceted emotional and behavioral needs. Antwone’s willingness to shatter the “man up” defense mechanism can usher in a new approach to environmental stressors Black men encounter.

Also, in many spaces for Black men, the characteristics of unhealthy “alpha male” patterns and behaviors often invade the conversation. These damaging and amplified versions of traditional manhood portray the idea that being rugged and emotionless are pathways to acceptance. We need environments that allow Black boys and men to express themselves in a manner that fosters racial and self-pride, as well as vulnerability, healthy communication, and social support.

In this sense, Antwone is the archetype of the new man that can emerge with the help of culturally responsive care and compassion. Just as the resurrection is the force that brings hope to humanity, we can examine radically changed lives as a sign of a new life. Stories like Fisher’s underscore the importance of revival and the work God will do in each of us. He has given us a Spirit that will awaken our true freedom from our human condition plagued by scars that tarnish the image of God. Like Fisher, when we cooperate with what’s good, we can be infused with grace to become restored.

“Antwone Fisher” provides a timely lesson on what the newness of life can look like. With Messianic themes of interdependence and rebirth, the film and its example can help Black brothers and sisters in Christ, and Black people as a whole in America uplift these virtuous messages for a rejuvenating perspective of how to chart a better future.

Efran Menny is a husband, father, and small-time writer. He’s a passionate educator, student of social work, and host of the "Saintly Witnesses" podcast.

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