"The word longing comes from the same root as the word long in the sense of length in either time or space and also the word belong, so that in its full richness to long suggests to yearn for a long time for something that is a long way off and something that we feel belongs to us," Frederick Buechner writes in his memoir The Longing for Home. He continues: "The longing for home is so universal a form of longing that there is even a special word for it, which is, of course homesickness. . . . I also know the sense of sadness and lostness that comes with feeling that you are a stranger and exile on the earth and that you would travel to the ends of that earth and beyond if you thought you could ever find the homeland that up till now you have only glimpsed from afar."
Antwone Fisher (Derek Luke) is an African-American in the Navy stationed in San Diego, California. He has trouble with his anger and is always getting into fights. After one confrontation, he is ordered to see Jerome Davenport (Denzel Washington), a Navy psychiatrist. He refuses to speak and spends several sessions squirming in silence. When Antwone finally decides to tell the story of his life, it soon becomes apparent why he was reluctant at first to do so. His mother was in prison when he was born, and she abandoned him after she was released. Antwone never met his father who was shot to death by another woman several months before his birth.
At age seven, while living in Cleveland, this little boy (Malcolm David Kelley) is regularly beaten by his foster mother, Mrs. Tate (Novella Nelson), who constantly calls him and two other foster boys "niggers." Antwone spends most of his nightmarish childhood feeling worthless and trying to psych out Mrs. Tate's mood by the food she gives them in the mornings. If it is pancakes, everything will be alright. If not, it will be another bad day. His foster mother is not the only monster in his life. Antwone suffers sexual abuse from another woman living in the house. The only person he tells about this humiliation is Jesse (Jascha Washington), a friend who later lets him down big time.
Davenport listens carefully to Antwone's story and is taken aback at the enormity of his suffering at the hands of those who were supposed to offer him love, nurturing, and an environment conducive to the development of his self-esteem. Once this angry young man opens up to the psychiatrist, he also asks for advice on dating. Antwone has a crush on Cheryl (Joy Bryant), an attractive woman who's also in the Navy. Her father is a Vietnam veteran and so she's familiar with the pain and suffering that can come out of soul-shattering experiences. She provides Antwone with the cocoon of love that he needs in order to put his anger aside and to begin the journey suggested by Davenport to locate his mother and to forgive her. Quite a large step but a totally necessary one.
Denzel Washington makes his debut as a director with this heart-felt drama about one young man's search for his origins. The film opens with a powerful dream in which Antwone as a seven-year-old is ushered into a large room filled with people who welcome him with smiling faces. He is the guest of honor at a long table filled with food. Everyone at this banquet is rejoicing in Antwone's presence. He beams with joy, knowing that he has found the people who love and cherish him. It is a breathtaking cinematic moment that lingers throughout the whole film as a symbol of home.
More than any other movie in recent years, this one, based on the autobiography of Antwone Fisher, zeroes in on the universal longing we all have for acceptance within the family circle. Antwone's homesickness is touchingly conveyed by an incredible performance by Derek Luke in his first feature film role. His natural gifts are brought to the fore in his interactions with Davenport and as his love affair with Cheryl blossoms. A trip back to Cleveland yields many rewards for Antwone who comes to face-to-face with the inner strength that has enabled him to weather the storms of the past and to emerge from them as a smart and sensitive young man. And as it sometimes happens, the healing he experiences extends to those around him, especially Davenport, who has been experiencing problems in his marriage.
At one point, Antwone gives Davenport a poem he's written that expresses what he's been through and who he truly is:
"Who will cry for the little boy, lost and all alone?
Who will cry for the little boy, abandoned without his own?
Who will cry for the little boy? He cried himself to sleep.
Who will cry for the little boy? He never had for keeps.
Who will cry for the little boy? He walked the burning sand.
Who will cry for the little boy? The boy inside the man.
Who will cry for the little boy? Who knows well hurt and pain.
Who will cry for the little boy? He died and died again.
Who will cry for the little boy? A good boy he tried to be.
Who will cry for the little boy, who cries inside of me?"
Don't be surprised when you find yourself crying for Antwone the little boy and the man he grows into by the end of the drama. But that won't be the only emotion you release. This is one of the best films of the year.
The DVD edition includes an audio commentary with director Denzel Washington and producer Todd Black, along with two featurettes; one focuses on the story's protagonist and is narrated by the real Antwone Fisher; the second provides a behind-the-scenes look at the production and incorporates interviews with cast and crew. There are also 32 scene selections, as well as a brief discussion of the role the Navy played in the making of the film.