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