Sunday, March 6, 2011

Movie moments - That delicate tap

Effective immediately, from time to time I will write posts discussing moments in movies that stick with me. I have no idea how often I'll do it or what moments I'll choose to discuss, but the purpose of this is not to tackle the really famous details from classic movies -- it's to examine small, quiet moments that may not immediately leap out at you.

What inspired this idea was a moment in Antwone Fisher, which I saw on Tuesday.

I was supposed to see Antwone Fisher for the first time several years ago -- I don't remember the circumstances, but I do remember that the copy of the movie I had was damaged, so I couldn't watch it. I didn't make a second attempt until Tuesday, when I watched the copy I'd won in a poker game last fall -- details discussed here.

I must say, my expectations for Antwone Fisher were not particularly high. Even though I'd recently seen and very much liked Denzel Washington's sophomore directing effort, The Great Debaters, that didn't significantly improve my perspective on the potential for his directorial debut. In fact, if I didn't inadvertently own a copy, I might not have ever watched it. I imagined it to be saccharine, and I felt that the mentor-mentee relationship at the center of the film would be trite.

Well, I was wrong. I really enjoyed it. Washington is a certifiable talent behind the camera, as he has now made two above average films. No, not everything about it is what you would call original. But overall I found it to be original in important ways, and more than anything, I was impressed by the performance that Washington coaxed out of Derek Luke in the title role. The character is believably complex -- because he grew up an orphan, among caregivers who would beat him, and was molested as a child (more on that later), he has a lot of anger. But he's also capable of exquisite sensitivity, and that's what I want to discuss today.

Near the end of the film, when he is driven to seek out his mother (who effectively abandoned him when she failed to claim him after being freed from the prison where he was born), Antwone and his girlfriend (played by the luminous Joy Bryant) spend hours in a Cleveland hotel room, calling all the Elkins in the phone book. He's just learned that Elkins was the surname of his father, who died before he was born. Late at night, when his girlfriend is asleep on the other bed, Antwone finally connects to the right Elkins -- in fact, it's so late that he awakens the person that turns out to be his aunt.

After a short conversation and setting a date to meet the next day, Antwone moves over to the other bed to give his girlfriend the good news. He doesn't really want to disturb her sleep, but the news is too important not to share. So he decides to lightly tap her on her arm with his finger.

Tap-tap-tap. No effect. Tap-tap-tap. No effect. Tap-tap-tap. This time, her eyes open. "I found my family," he tells her in a soft voice, with all the hopeful innocence of a child. Her face becomes aglow, and she wraps him up in a warm embrace.

For some reason, I just love this moment. More than any "big scene" could ever accomplish, this light tapping on his girlfriend's arm speaks volumes about the way Antwone has matured from a derelict naval officer, ready to fight at any moment as the result of any provocation, to a sensitive man who just wants to find beauty in the world, to replace the ugliness he has known. It put a big smile on my face.

Whether this is an accurate representation of the real Antwone Fisher, or a fanciful embellishment by the man himself (Fisher wrote the script to his own life story), doesn't really matter. What matters is the arc that Luke and Washington have created for this particular character. And it's immensely satisfying. It's all the more so the next day, when Fisher's newly discovered relatives welcome him with open arms and a giant feast. (Everyone but his actual mother, who is distant and paralyzed by regret, but the others more than make up for it.)

I said I would get back to the sexual molestation experienced by Fisher as a child ... and so I will now, with some hesitation. When I first saw the movie, I was thinking of making this the topic of a whole post before I decided it was too controversial.

Over the course of the narrative it's revealed that Antwone, now age 25, is a virgin. The reasons for his virginity come out in the course of his sessions with Washington's character, a naval psychiatrist. It turns out Antwone, as a six-year-old, was sexually molested by an older girl (late teens? early 20s?) also living in his foster home. This led directly to him never having seen another woman naked to that day.

At the time I was struck by our societal double standard regarding molestation of children, and how it contributes to things like the effectiveness of a dramatic plot point in a movie. Any time a man has relations with a child, be it boy or girl, it is quite obviously an abhorrent transgression, and we are not surprised in the least to learn that the child was traumatized by this incident. However, when it's a woman doing the molesting, it doesn't seem to have quite the same impact on us, does it? I tend to think about the cases we've heard where a teacher slept with a student. If it's a male teacher sleeping with a female (or male) student, we tend to think that the student was taken advantage of, even if he/she viewed it as consensual. But when a female teacher sleeps with a male student, well, we think of it as the male student's wildest fantasies come true, don't we?

Needless to say, this is a faulty analogy because no six-year-old child can be said to consent to any kind of sexual activity -- unless it is kissing another six-year-old on the playground. But I must admit that this double standard is so strong, it affected my ability to view Antwone's sexual abuse as quite the tragedy the movie makes it out to be.

Don't get me wrong, I'm fully aware that my perspective is unjust. I'm just trying to elucidate the strength of this double standard. We tend to think of males -- even if they're boys -- as so eager to have (heterosexual) sex, that even being six years old would make it some kind of "fantasy come true."

Like I said, controversial. But I thought it was worth discussing. I don't doubt that the real Fisher was traumatized by this "relationship," especially since it seemed to involve some kind of dominance (when doesn't sexual molestation involve dominance?) and possibly violence as well (when isn't sexual molestation violent, at least emotionally if not physically?).

Don't judge me too much for being honest. I just like to keeps it real, and discuss what comes into my head, as it comes into my head. After all, in their best form, shouldn't movies stimulate ideas in us, make us want to discuss their contents?

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