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Psych on the Screen
The Power of Psychotherapy: A Review of Antwone Fisher

By Elaine Cassel

Antwone Fisher, directed by and starring Denzel Washington, is based on the true story of a young man who had plenty of reasons to be angry. His anger could have destroyed him, but psychotherapy turned him around. The movie has much to offer students of psychology.

The movie depicts the concepts of resilience, the ability to rebound or recover from terrible odds and high risk factors for psychological and social maladjustment. It also portrays psychoanalytic psychotherapy at its best.

The real Antwone Fisher was born in prison prior to his father being murdered. He was adopted by sadistic and abusive foster parents. The foster parentsí children ostracized and bullied Antwone. He suffered sexual abuse at the hands of a babysitter. Then he got into trouble himself and spent his later teen years in a reform school, a prison for juveniles. Of course, he did not finish high school. Taken together, these factors created valid reasons for Antwone to be angry at the world. And angry he was, though he managed to keep it bottled up inside himself.

Antwone demonstrated resilient qualities by shunning a life of crime and violence that would have come so easily, especially after reform school. Instead, he joined the Navy. But an already angry young man found himself once again at the bottom of the pecking order. He did not like it when people treated him with disrespect, but he, like other enlisted men, got plenty of disrespect. Already suffering from self-doubt and shame about his past, he reacted with angry outbursts when his self-esteem was challenged.

On the verge of being honorably discharged, he was ordered into psychotherapy. This is not a common occurrence in the military. Indeed, Timothy McVeigh, convicted and executed Oklahoma City bomber, and Washington, D.C., area sniper John Allen Muhammad were both tossed out of the military (not sent to therapy) for their bad attitudes. Their rejection by the military fueled both of these menís already deep-seated anger and frustration and fueled horrific violence.

In the movie version of his life, Antwone (played by newcomer Derek Luke) was fortunate enough to be assigned to a Navy psychiatrist, Jerome Davenport (played by Denzel Washington), who epitomizes what a good psychoanalytic therapist should be. In the course of their sessions, Antwone recalls the abuse and heartbreaks he suffered and comes to terms with his anger and resentment. Davenport experiences some countertransference, as he establishes a relationship with his client filled with the warmth and connection missing in his marriage.

Of course, because this is a movie, there has to be a love interest. As these things go, it is a bit too good to be true, as the woman is precisely what Antwone needs to complete the corrective emotional experience (a key to recovery, according to psychoanalytic therapies like Antwone underwent). His relationships with her and with Davenport help give him the courage to search for his parents.

The real Antwone obtained a job as a security guard at Sony Pictures in Hollywood. He took a screenwriting class offered by a program at a Los Angeles church, and his script came into the hands of two producers. He escaped reliving the lives of his parents through intelligence, hard work, and a willingness to change. He also had social support from several sources--Davenport, his girlfriend, the church that sponsored the screenwriting class, and movie producers who bought his script. Psychologists believe that social support is key to achieving resilience.

Antwone Fisher depicts an individual who takes advantage of the lifelines that are thrown his way. Lucky for us, his story made its way to the screen, where it both instructs and inspires. Antwone is now involved in promoting improvement of the child welfare system which let him down.

Elaine Cassel, Marymount University and Lord Fairfax Community College