Statistics say that 75% of Black children are born in single-family households, a number that has increased exponentially since the 1960s. Directors Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern’s surprisingly bold documentary “In My Father’s House” follows Che ‘Rhymefest’ Smith as he embarks on a journey to find his absentee father, a man that he never knew. After buying the house that his father grew up in, Che is suddenly desperate to learn about the man who is responsible for his existence.
At first glance, the subject seems rather tiresome and cliché. Another Black man without a father, Che defied the odds and left behind his rough Chicago neighborhood and found major success in music. (He co-wrote “Jesus Walks” with Kanye West and “Glory” with Common and John Legend.) However, when Che finally does reconnect with his father, he finds him living on the street a few blocks from his home. Brian Tillman is a destitute man; he’s an alcoholic who has been living on the streets of Chicago for the past twenty years. And yet, despite his circumstances, Brian brings light humor and warmth to an otherwise devastating subject matter. He’s charismatic and extremely intelligent, but also somehow broken, either by the cycle of Black oppression or something equally as sinister.
A Chicago native, it was thrilling to see the real Chi-town on screen. The film showed neighborhoods and places that were familiar to me, it didn’t focus on the glitz and glam of downtown. The documentary felt authentic because it didn’t smooth over the grit and ugliness of the city. Like “Hoop Dreams” (1994) and “Cooley High” (1975) the city wasn’t simply a backdrop in the story. The harsh winters, segregation and violence all honestly played a part in the story. Brian lived and thrived on the streets and the camera was right there with him.
Rebuilding familial relationships is not an easy task. However, “In My Father’s House” moves in a an extremely surprising direction. Sometimes, it’s other people’s expectations of you that will drive you to do better for yourself. And yet, total sobriety after decades of abuse is not the easiest path to take. Sometimes it’s easier to meet people where they are, and to accept what they are able to bring to the table, rather than placing your own expectations upon them.
The film at times felt almost too personal to watch. As Che and his wife Donnie struggle to conceive their first child together as a couple, Che turns the camera on himself, confronting his own inadequacies as a father, including his nonexistent relationship with his one-year-old daughter. So often we discuss single mothers and fatherless children in the Black community. Rarely do we have the chance to hear from Black women who are struggling to have babies. Donnie’s story adds an extremely poignant layer to the film, steering it in a far more profound and heartbreaking direction.
A thoroughly powerful film, the story only faltered slightly concerning two points. In the film, Brian talks briefly about his abusive father, but the film fails to dig deeper into his background. It’s obvious that his father did not end up on the streets by accident, but we never get a true explanation as to why he ended up where he did. Likewise, Che’s own relationships with his children are troublesome. His youngest daughter was conceived around the same time he met and married Donnie but his only interactions with the little girl are via child support payments. Though he acknowledges his paternity in the end, he seems reluctant to form a real relationship with the child. It leaves the audience wondering why he seems so much more invested in the unborn child rather than forming a bond with the one he already has.
“In My Father’s House” is a beautifully haunting film about the cycles that we find ourselves in. Its both hilarious and heartbreaking moments really shine light on the affects of absentee parents, drug and alcohol abuse, as well as homelessness in the Black community. The film sugarcoats nothing and instead forces us to take a long, hard, look to ourselves.
Aramide A Tinubu has her Master’s in Film Studies from Columbia University. She wrote her thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger, and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can read her blog at: www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami