The Heroic Age of Denzel: the films Antwone Fisher and Unstoppable, starring Denzel Washington

By Daniel Garrett
Antwone Fisher
Directed by Denzel Washington
Fox Searchlight, 2002

Directed by Tony Scott
Twentieth Century Fox, 2010

It took me a while to see Antwone Fisher, the biographical screenplay written by the man who lived the life and gave the film project his name, a work sensitively directed by the great actor Denzel Washington.  I had thought the film a lot simpler than it was—I thought it was some kind of celebration of ghetto life, but I could not have been more wrong: it is about how an abused boy joins the military and meets a navy psychiatrist who helps him to understand his past and use his anger as energy for self-improvement, and to use his loneliness as a spur to connect with a healthy branch of his family.  Consciousness leads to purpose.  I should have known to expect something distinguished, something good, from Denzel Washington, even though many other artists—writers, film directors, and musicians among them—do pander to minority resentment and self-pity while pretending as if poverty rather than education is ennobling or liberating.  Of course, it is sometimes impossible to know what comes first: the change in personal sensibility or in society, especially as it regards the issues that touch on both, such as class, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation.  Yet, I should have kept Denzel Washington’s remarkable career in mind, in which his excellence has defined a contemporary standard of the classical: an intelligent, dignified, handsome, and confident man appearing in equally intelligent and tasteful films, playing soldiers, manual laborers, train operators, policemen, professors, and political leaders who meet the challenges set before them with bravery and decency, ingenuity, tenacity, smiling humor, and insight—with honor.

In Richard Attenborough’s late 1980s film Cry Freedom (1987) from Universal, the subject is Stephen Biko, an educator and activist in apartheid South Africa, someone who is seen as a hero by blacks who need him, and a demon by whites who fear him.  Stephen Biko affirms African identity, and criticizes the treatment of blacks—the bad situations they find themselves in regarding daily life and in relationship to the government and police.  Stephen Biko is played by Denzel Washington and it is one of Washington’s early heroic parts, but, of course, far from his last: in one way or another, many of his characters are heroes, men choosing to believe in the best of themselves and others, and willing to work for personal and social transformation.  In the film, Biko meets a suspicious white editor, Donald Woods, played by Kevin Kline, and they talk and begin to understand each other as men and citizens.  The editor sees that there is more than one way of interpreting reality, some of which—in socially segregated South Africa—the two men share and some of which divides them and much of which had been subjected to intense propaganda—in which Biko was interpreted as demonic: hateful, mad, relentless, violent.  Biko faces more than resistance from the political establishment; he faces the full force of its violence, and the editor takes on the telling of Biko’s story to the world.  The Biko role, one rooted in actual history, is the kind of noble role that can be scoffed at—it was mocked, sometimes, when the greatly respectable, deeply talented Sidney Poitier played exemplary characters, heroic men—but that kind of figure is more necessary that many other roles, such as those of misfortune and mediocrity that ignorant and malicious people affirm as the most authentic and real.  Certainly this film, Cry Freedom, which was made before Africans won political rights in South Africa, helped to lead to a shift in consciousness that supported political change. The dramatic role of Stephen Biko is the kind of admirable endeavor that brings heat and light to a great and cold darkness: few people acquire knowledge from the stupid, or find reasons for pride from the shameful and weak—but we can learn much from men such as Biko.

The psychiatrist that Denzel Washington plays in Antwone Fisher is another strong role: Washington is commanding but sympathetic, intelligent and practical and self-protective; and the other actors (Joy Bryant as a young navy woman; Salli Richardson as the psychiatrist’s wife) perform well too, but the most important and impressive performance is that of Derek Luke, a very charismatic and intelligent actor, a young master of swiftly shifting moods.  Derek Luke, dark-skinned, thoughtful, with the brightest of smiles, and something of a slight strut, is quite believable as a good man who has a hair-trigger temper (he thinks many people are against him because those nearest him have been); and as Antwone accepts the psychiatrist in his life as a mentor and finds a girl he likes, he becomes more civil, deeper, kinder.  Antwone is attracted to an intelligent, sweet young woman, but does not ask her out until he feels more sane and secure (in a scene in which Luke and Bryant talk, her laughter is a charming sight); and when the young man speaks to the psychiatrist’s wife—who is not sure how to respond to her husband’s silence about their childless life—Antwone’s warm words incline the wife to invite the young man to a holiday dinner, though the psychiatrist will warn Antwone not to try to replace the young man’s estranged family with someone else’s.  Luke’s chemistry with almost everyone in the film is intriguing and amusing—such chemistry could be the basis for an erotic comedy.  As it is, the film begins with a sentimental dream of home and reconciliation and it ends with the bittersweet fact of reconciliation. Denzel Washington’s next directing project, The Great Debaters, built on the strength of Antwone Fisher, featured more characters, and was a story of academic competition, labor activism, cultural pride, and young romance, and was anchored by another Denzel character of intellect and style, and included some cinematic trickery, specifically the use of a young debater’s handheld camera for some of the narration.

Denzel Washington has made films of drama, history, and ideas, and he has made films that are predominately entertainments, such as Unstoppable, which was inspired by a true story, about two men, an elder engineer and a young conductor, who work together to stop a runaway train in Pennsylvania.  One has been preparing to retire, and the other took the job in search of something different.  Denzel’s persona in the film is earthy, humorous, and sympathetic but tough when it comes to work standards; and Chris Pine is his co-star as an angry, smart young man new to the train job but worried distractedly about his family (he has had an argument with his wife, and they are separated).  Together, the older man and younger man are heroes in a beautiful and fast-flowing film that is calculated to win applause.  It is not easy to reject the film, as within it character and knowledge and human life have value; and the elements in Unstoppable work.  Rosario Dawson is very good as a train-yard manager, the force in her eyes and her manner dominating her prettiness, though Dawson’s handling of her hair as dramatic punctuation may be too pronounced; and Kevin Corrigan looks good in a suit and is admirably controlled as a transit expert who happens to be visiting to give a talk to a tour of children and proves helpful.  These different people work against the presiding business interests and questionable authorities—lacking grounded knowledge—to protect the endangered surrounding communities.  Unstoppable has beauty, drama, humor, and suspense, but it is film as corporation and efficient machine—and it is quite a thrill ride.  What is Denzel doing next?

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House.  Daniel Garrett is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today.  Daniel Garrett has written extensively about international film for Offscreen, and comprehensive commentary on music for The Compulsive Reader.  Garrett has an internet log, “The Art Notes of a Solitary Walker,” focused on visual art.  He has written a novel, A Stranger on Earth.