April 27, 2010
For Antwone Fisher, Art Imitates Life ... Cathartically
Antwone Fisher burst into the public consciousness with his transcendent film, “Antwone Fisher,” which recounts his hellish childhood, his tense early years in the Navy and how he ultimately made peace with his past with the help of a Navy psychiatrist (played by Denzel Washington, who also directed the film). Now an accomplished screenwriter, Fisher will appear at the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival on May 11 with his new short film, “My Summer Friend,” about another troubled African American on a difficult but healing journey. The 28-minute short will screen at 7 p.m., before the Los Angeles premiere of the feature film “Holy Rollers,” starring Jesse Eisenberg as a Chasidic drug smuggler.
In “My Summer Friend,” Romell (Mykelti Williamson), just released after serving 16 years in prison, is assigned to work at a Jewish convalescent home, where he forms an unlikely friendship with Aliza (Annie Abbott), a Holocaust survivor. As she describes her tragic experiences and urges Romell to reflect on his life, the ex-convict changes his outlook and learns to recognize the value of time. Romell, in turn, proves invaluable to Aliza: “He gives her the chance to tell her story,” Fisher said. “When you are alone at the end of your life, you need to tell somebody that you lived, you loved, you had pain and joy, you went through a terrible time but survived.”
Fisher, now 51, is also a survivor. Born in prison to a teenage convict, he lived in an orphanage until he was 2, then endured horrific cruelty and humiliation at the hands of his foster mother, who flung racial epithets and beat Antwone to unconsciousness — for the first time — when he was 8. A baby sitter sexually molested him as a young boy. And after the orphan was “emancipated” out of a reform school at 17, he found himself homeless on the streets of Cleveland before enlisting in the military. “I know what it is like to be unwanted,” he said.
Which is why Fisher was so drawn to the elderly Jews he met a decade ago while researching an unproduced HBO script set in a Jewish convalescent home. At the time, the former naval officer didn’t know any Jews except for “Antwone Fisher” producer Todd Black, who had encouraged him to write the movie while Fisher was working as a security guard at Sony Pictures Studios.
To research his HBO project, Fisher began visiting a convalescent home on Fairfax Avenue and “wound up getting very emotionally involved with the residents,” he said.
The first thing he noticed was how thrilled they were to have a young guest, because their own children rarely visited. This puzzled and perplexed the orphaned writer, who would have been grateful to have had parents of his own to visit.
During his daily treks to the home, Fisher was transfixed by residents who regaled him with stories about the fun they had had during the 1930s — or of losing their own families in the Holocaust.
“The visits started to be not so much about the movie I was writing, but the experience I was having with these people I initially thought I had nothing in common with,” he said. “As it turned out, we did have a lot in common: I had been a child abandoned, and they were old people who were abandoned. We could communicate based on our need to connect.”
The senior citizens relished the opportunity to tell their life stories, and the orphaned Fisher enjoyed the attention from nurturing elders. But after a month, he said, he had become so personally involved with the residents — even serving as a liaison between one woman and her estranged daughter — that he became distracted from his own personal and professional responsibilities. He stopped visiting the home but said, “I could not get the experience out of my mind.”
Last year, he transformed those memories into the character of the Holocaust survivor in “My Summer Friend”; the fictional ex-con was inspired by Fisher’s foster brother, Dwight, who had been released from prison in 2008. (Dwight is not his real name but the one Fisher used to refer to his sibling in his 2001 best-selling memoir, “Finding Fish,” the basis for “Antwone Fisher.”)
Dwight, he explained, was the smartest, the most sensitive and the angriest of the four children who shared their abusive foster home. Dwight spent much of his adult life in prison — the result of a crime spree when he was 17 — and was flummoxed upon his release two years ago. “He’d been locked up in a cell smaller than this room,” Fisher said, gesturing around the small study of his Ladera Heights home, “so he couldn’t sleep at night because the world felt too big.”
Fisher believes Dwight has suffered too much psychic damage to ever lead a “normal” life; their foster sister is already dead, and their brother, once a sweet and upbeat child, is dying of kidney failure as a result of his heroin addiction. Although the filmmaker did find his biological relatives, as documented in “Antwone Fisher,” he said his foster siblings are the only people to whom he feels true family ties.
The ex-con in “My Summer Friend” fares better, finding redemption in his friendship with the widowed survivor. “From her he learns that his life can be worthwhile and that he can impact others in a positive way,” Fisher said.
“My Summer Friend” will screen May 11 at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Beverly Hills, in an event co-sponsored by The Jewish Journal. Naomi Pfefferman will moderate a question-and-answer session with Fisher and Abbott, followed by a screening of “Holy Rollers” and a Q & A with that movie’s screenwriter, Antonio Macia. For tickets and information call (800) 838-3006 or visit lajfilmfest.org.