Denzel Washington, an ensemble player on the popular 1980s hospital drama ''St. Elsewhere,'' didn't quit TV the minute he began making a name for himself in film. Rather, the actor stayed loyal to the medium that launched him, chose his movie roles with finesse, and grew, gracefully, into the marquee star he is today.
That same unteachable skill in locating the right work at the right time benefits Antwone Fisher, in which Washington not only costars but also makes his feature directorial debut. The autobiographical drama (with a screenplay by the real Fisher) about a young Navy seaman's evolution from angry and fight-prone foster kid into an impressive young man, values narrative straightforwardness over visual innovation. The message is old-fashioned and unironic: With determination and support, a person can overcome adversity. Even in scenes of conflict, the pace is measured.
Like the persona of Washington himself, ''Antwone Fisher'' is intense but dignified. In fact, the movie is beyond reproach, in all the best -- and also emotionally claustrophobic -- senses of the word. It's hard for me to love. Yet it feels hard-hearted not to try.
Washington's on-camera work, as a naval psychiatrist, is as grounded and commanding as one has come to expect of the Oscar winner in such roles. (That the doctor has his own communication problems with his wife is a nice, if overemphatic, shrinks-are-human touch.) But Derek Luke's clean, direct performance as Fisher is the real attention-getter, because Luke himself, an unknown actor, is a surprise. Washington the director couldn't have made a smarter choice for the title role -- or chosen a more appropriate project to make his own. Many may weep as this earnest celebration of the human spirit reaches its inevitable climax. But even though I remain dry-eyed, I believe a salute is in order.