Life is hard and then you die. It's the story of millions of blighted lives in America, and might well have been the story - a true story - of Antwone Fisher, born to a mother in prison, with a father killed by an ex-girlfriend two months before the birth. After two years in an orphanage, when his mother did not come for him, he was given to a foster family with a mother out of Dickens by way of De Sade. (She is played by Novella Nelson with a horrifying, inappropriate smile as she beats and humiliates her foster children.) At the same time Antwone is sexually molested by an adult cousin; when we meet him in the film he is a 25-year-old virgin, unable to surmount or confront the horrors of his childhood. And although the film takes some factual liberties, the true story is even more amazing: Fisher was a security guard at the Universal studio lot, wrote the script of his life, showed it to a producer there who optioned it, and ultimately Denzel Washington agreed to direct and act in it.
As the film opens Antwone is a petty officer stationed on an aircraft carrier at the naval base in San Diego, on the verge of being thrown out of the Navy for his constant fights and hairtrigger temper. Sent to the base psychiatrist, Jerome Davenport (Washington), he sits mute for session after session until the dam starts to break and he begins to tell his story. At the same time, Davenport is running away from his own marital problems through his own tight silence and unwillingness to deal with his wife Berta (Salli Richardson). Each man will come to heal the other.
Throughout the film we see episodes from his childhood and adolescence; episodes that few people ever survive. But the movie is the story of Antwone's slow coming to grips with his life, and his discovery of a way into an understanding and maturity that will see him into adulthood. He has a girlfriend, of sorts, Cheryl (Joy Bryant), who is his true helpmeet. Finally he understands Dr. Davenport's recommendation that he go back to Cleveland and find a way to reconnect with his family, no matter the cost. He goes back with Cheryl, and does reconnect, in a climactic sequence that is both heartbreaking and redemptive.
Antwone is played by the first-time actor Derek Luke, in an amazing debut. He has a dark, boldly sculptured face in a powerful body that he has spent his adulthood using badly in his fights. His voice is without affectation and he easily commands the screen. Washington has drawn a wonderfully fascinating performance from him, sympathetic but not mannered in any way. (Among the many stories about how this film managed to get made is the fact that Luke is a friend of the real Antwone Fisher, but did not mention it at his audition for fear that it would hurt his chances.)
Is the film perfect? No, in part because the two women, Cheryl and Berta, are almost superhuman in their willingness to understand their men; and because the tension of the film begins to sag in the middle. But it is a fine and powerful and healing experience, and there's nothing wrong with that.