Antwone Fisher (2002) offers one powerful example of how effective Black male mentorship looks in praxis. This film marks the debut of Denzel Washington as a director. Washington also stars in the film as psychiatrist Dr. Jerome Davenport. Derek Luke (Antwone “Fish” Fisher) begins his Hollywood debut in this film. The inspiration for the film emerges from the true story of Antwone Fisher (the screenwriter) and is based on his autobiographical work Finding Fish. The film is produced by Denzel Washington, Nancy Paloian and Todd Black.
The story centers on Antwone “Fish” Fisher (Derek Luke), a young man in the Navy with a deeply complex and troubling past. His father was murdered before he was born and his mother was incarcerated soon after his father’s death. Fish’s teenage mother, Eva Mae Fisher (Viola Davis), gave birth to him while she was incarcerated. While she was in jail, Antwone was put in an orphanage until his mother was released. Unfortunately, she never claimed him when she was released from jail and he was placed in foster care at the age of two. His foster parents, who claimed to be Christians, were Mr. and Mrs. Tate (Ellis Williams and Novella Nelson). Mrs. Tate’s claim to be a Christian was exposed by her many years of mental and physical abuse of Fisher until he departed from her home at 14 years old. Antwone also experienced sexual abuse and molestation by an African American woman who Mrs. Tate left him in her care when she had to leave for work. Mr. Tate is oddly absent from the home while all of the dominant action takes place. Presumably, he’s out working long hours. Antwone leaves his foster home in search of freedom from mental, physical and sexual abuse.
Fish lives on the street for a few years before he resolves to join the United States Navy to chart a new course in his life. As is understandable, his turbulent childhood causes him to struggle with an unbecoming temper. He gets into fights with a few sailors and is demoted, fined and restricted to the ship for 45 days. As a part of his punishment, his commanding officer mandates that he receives physiatrist treatment from Dr. Jerome Davenport (Denzel Washington). Through Dr. Davenport’s work with Fisher, he’s able to achieve success and liberation from his oppressive past, and is able to enjoy a relationship with a woman—despite how his childhood sexual abuse and molestation complicate having a relationship with a woman and her touch.
Dr. Davenport is depicted as a strong leader, smart, disciplined, and compassionate. He’s willing to move from just doing his professional work to using that professional work for charitable service. Davenport sees a need in ameliorating the life of this young brother who is vexed by his childhood. While it may be easy for some people who have never had similar childhood experiences as Fisher to say he simply needed to get over his past, it’s far more complicated than that and this type of thinking lacks sophistication and compassion.
We need more black men to assume a real life mentorship role as Dr. Davenport does in the film. Davenport did not have to go beyond his professional sessions with Fisher, but he understood his linked fate to Antwone. He understood that when young black men like Fish are struggling, he’s struggling too. Dr. Davenport reflects a potent sense of community and he uses mentorship as a vehicle for promoting community improvement.
Although the film ends with your typical happy ending, its exploration of the life of Antwone Fisher brings to the national scene many of the experiences young black males confront. Unfortunately, many young black males resort to negative means of coping with these experiences. Too many black men are neglecting an opportunity to improve the plight of underprivileged young black males.
Dr. Davenport was instrumental in helping Fisher to become a reflective thinker and learner. He taught Fisher how to think about his past experiences in empowering ways rather than in depressing ways. Although Dr. Davenport is a psychiatrist, black men don’t need to be one to have an auspicious impact on the behavior and educational experiences of black males. It was not so much Davenport’s educational background that enabled him to instigate a change in the life of Fisher; it was more about his will to answer the call of leadership and responsibility of mentorship. Asa Grant Hillard, III always reminded black people about the importance of having the will to make change happen, and how vital having this will is to ameliorating black male academic achievement.
When one situates Fisher’s entrance into the Navy in our present moment, he would be required to complete his high school diploma. Joining the Navy in any period in American history promotes learning and positive progression. While we certainly want to increase the number of African American men who enroll in higher education institutions, there are other successful paths for them to select, which, of course, include military service. What’s important is for more black males to be redirected from being ravished by nihilism to paths of advancement, which learning—both formal and informal—must be central to those paths.
More committed African-American male mentors, such as Dr. Davenport, can aid in more black males moving from embracing nihilism and replacing it with achievement. Antwone Fisher provides one valuable example of positive and effective black male mentorship and the redeeming value of mentorship at its best.
Antonio Maurice Daniels
University of Wisconsin-Madison
While there is a need for more non-profit organizations, everyone is not qualified to start and lead a non-profit organization. Too many people are talking about starting a non-profit organization for the wrong reasons. The people who are talking about forming non-profit organizations for the wrong reasons need to be led. They don’t need to be presiding over anyone. Some of the erroneous reasons people are talking about developing non-profit organizations are as follows: (1) simply because they are unemployed; (2) they are using discourse about starting a non-profit organization for self-aggrandizement; (3) starting a non-profit organization is the only thing they can think of to do; and (4) they need something to boost their self-esteem and this augmenting of their self-esteem has nothing to do with helping the people the organization is supposed to be founded to serve.
You have to have some qualifications, experience, skills, and accomplishments to lead people. Traditional qualifications, experience, skills, and accomplishments are not always requisite to being able to lead people effectively, but your qualifications, experience, skills, and accomplishments must be genuine. You cannot be an effective leader of an organization by just randomly thinking you are qualified to be a leader of an organization. Leading, starting, and managing an effective non-profit organization is not easy. In fact, it’s quite challenging. If you don’t have a true love for helping people, then don’t talk about starting a non-profit organization. Starting an effective non-profit organization is not something you can just jump up and do. It’s also deeply offensive to the strenuous and thorough work that leaders of effective non-profit organizations do to pretend like you are serious about starting a non-profit organization when you know that you are going to do it.
For those Black men who don’t have a true commitment to launching non-profit ventures that focus on mentoring young Black males, don’t play with the serious need of mentoring young Black males simply for the vain purposes you are toying with starting a non-profit undertaking supposedly for them. The need to ameliorate the lives of disadvantaged Black males is far too important for people to be playing around with. For those who are attention hungry and simply see talking about starting a non-profit organization for Black males or youth in general, you need to understand that our children are too precious and important for you to attempt to use them for your own selfish gains.
We all need good people in our lives to provide us with support. Many authentic leaders are among us. It is vital, however, for those who are not leaders to understand that they are not leaders. You know when you are not a leader and you know when you’re not willing to lead or don’t have what it takes to lead. Everyone was not created to be a leader—face it! Just as we need leaders to be great leaders, we need followers to be great followers. The work of great leaders is significantly buttressed when they are able to benefit from great followers.
When you find yourself experiencing daily bouts with self-doubt and self-pity, the harsh reality is you are not ready and fit to lead. There’s nothing wrong with knowing when you need to be led and when you are not ready and/or capable of leading. It’s always critical for human beings to seek and embrace the truth, for this is the essence of what “being real” is. Sorry to break the much needed news to you, but you don’t become a leader just by calling yourself one and pretending like you are one.
Antonio Maurice Daniels
University of Wisconsin-Madison