At screening after screening of "Antwone Fisher," the man whose movie has made more men cry than any film since "Field of Dreams" has watched his turbulent life unfold on screen. He's completely unmoved.
Until those scenes.
The one where the kindergartner with the bright, bottle-cap eyes is bound and beaten with a wet rag. The one where this tiny child is ordered into the basement by a woman who forces him to -- well, it's no easier to write than it is to watch.
For screenwriter Antwone Fisher, young actor Malcolm Kelly's terrified responses -- even in a movie that Fisher wrote and saw being filmed -- are unwatchable. Invariably, he leaves the theater, whispers to his wife or asks himself, "So how much is the cost of tea in China?"
This is the same guy who's amazed when interviewers ask if actor Derek Luke, who plays him as an adult, "captured the essence" of his pain. "Take [Luke] back a couple of decades, beat him and make him sleep outside in Cleveland in December -- maybe he'll capture it," he says quietly.
Yet the child actor's brutal scenes undo him.
"Derek's performance is great," explains Fisher, 43, in Washington this week for a Children's Defense Fund screening. "But Malcolm's a little boy. I know how I felt as a little boy, but I never saw myself.
"It's just too hard."
Why wouldn't it be? People found it hard just reading about Faheem Williams, 7, discovered dead in a locked basement this month in Newark. He and two of his brothers -- found bruised, emaciated and excrement-covered but alive -- had been living with a female cousin who had taken the boys in after their mother was jailed. The mother had been cited for 10 complaints of abuse and neglect.
The brothers had fallen off the social services radar. Their caseworker reportedly had 100 other ongoing investigations.
With the economy sinking and a controversial war looming, it can be hard to remember foster children, though a near-record 550,000 children live in foster homes, group homes and child care institutions. Two million more live with grandparents or other relatives. An estimated 7,731 children a day are reported as abused or neglected to public child welfare agencies -- and most don't get help, says Defense Fund spokesman Toby Chaudhury.
(Concerned citizens can urge their congregations or businesses to offer space for foster kids' support meetings or provide internships to youngsters about to "age out" of foster care. Or they can become special advocates who speak for such children in the courts through Volunteers for Abused and Neglected Children, at 202-328-2194.)
Fisher, abandoned by his mother and for decades unknown to his murdered father's family, is among the lucky few who got help. For years, a dedicated educator, whom he lauds in his book "Finding Fish," acted almost as a surrogate mother. He cultivated friends whom he "made a family of because nobody wanted me at home."
And after stints in orphanages and reform school, Fisher joined the Navy and met the supportive psychiatrist played in "Antwone Fisher" by director Denzel Washington. Though therapy was forced on Fisher by Navy personnel when his seething rage put him "on the train track to trouble," it helped him enormously.
"You can't keep that [anger] bottled up," he says. "People do -- but they die early or get ulcers or are grumpy all the time. . . . People don't want to be seen as crazy. I think if you don't get help, you're crazy.
"People go to a medical doctor every year. What's wrong with checking your mental health?"
The soft-spoken Fisher is frank and disarming. When it's suggested that Oscar buzz could inflate his ego, he hints that his real-life happy ending protects him.
"I have two kids, a wife and a lawn mower," he says. "I'm the only person in my neighborhood who cuts his own grass."
Still, his saga sounds like a Hollywood fantasy: Struggling screenwriter and studio security guard is paid by hot producer (Todd Black, "A Knight's Tale") to turn his searing life story into a screenplay. Oscar-winning actor chooses screenplay for his directorial debut.
Resulting movie is an uplifting, critically acclaimed hit.
Though he contributed to scripts for the Chris Tucker comedies "Rush Hour" and "Money Talks," writing 40 versions of his own was his real education. "Some people go to college for four years and still can't write a screenplay," he says. "I had Todd Black and Denzel Washington as professors.
"That's a pretty good university."
Fisher suspects that audience members, whose audible sniffles accompany most screenings, are responding to "a lot of things" besides the film's vivid portrayal of the importance of family. "For a long time, men got the rap for child abuse or molestation," he explains. "Women were doing it, too."
Even if his movie receives no major honors -- "Antwone Fisher" was inexplicably ignored by the Golden Globes -- Fisher says he won't complain about getting "rewards, not awards" for a movie that tells bruised children of all ages that "there's hope. That there are good people in the world despite what's happened to you.
"That you shouldn't feel shameful."