Che "Rhymefest" Smith (right) and his father Brian Smith in a scene from the documentary, "In My Father's House." | Charles Miller/Break Thru Films

October 7, 2015

MIRIAM DI NUNZIO on October 7, 2015

“In My Father’s House,” a documentary by Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg that chronicles the journey undertaken by Chicago rapper Che “Rhymefest” Smith to track down and reconcile with his deadbeat dad, could not have come at a better time. Especially for the violence-plagued Chicago, where black children are caught in the crossfire of gun violence, and solutions, for the moment, are few.

The film begins with some startling statistics, perhaps the most telling being: 75 percent of black children are born into single-family households. It’s the most powerful thread running through the doc.

Rhymefest raises the question about halfway through the film, when he’s speaking on WVON radio about the gun violence and crime plaguing Chicago’s South and West sides: Where does fathering come in? “Young people join gangs ’cause they don’t have fathers or mothers or role models. We have to be the role models, the fathers or mothers to kids who don’t have them,” the rapper says into the studio microphone, of the community at-large he hopes will listen.

Turns out Rhymefest knows of what he speaks. We learn how his father, Brian Smith, an alcoholic deadbeat, abandoned the young Che and his mom when the boy was 10 years old. Raised intermittently by his troubled teenaged mom and grandparents, the boy longs for the father he once knew. “Dad, I needed you all my life. Where were you? Did your father abandon you?” Che muses in voiceover. Now happily married and raising a son, Che vows to not repeat the sins of the father. But fear of repeating the cycle tugs at his heart.

Father and son are reunited when Che, after moving into his childhood home, discovers his dad has been living on the streets of Chicago’s West Side for 25 years. Their reunion is emotional, as father and son come to terms with what it means to be a parent, and what it means for children to accept their parents for who they are. It also forces Che to examine his own role as a father to his 1-year-old daughter (with whom he has had little contact) from a previous relationship, and to his teenaged son, whom he obviously adores. We learn how quickly fame can destroy the fiber of a man’s being, as Rhymefest explains his wild carousing and the careless spending of millions of dollars earned when he was on top of the hip-hop world.

We also meet Che’s wife Donnie, a beautiful, strong-willed woman, who helps her husband see the world as it is, and to work on whatever level necessary to make it better. “Both our moms had drug problems,” she reveals in voiceover as she pages through the meticulously kept scrapbooks and photo albums of their lives. “Both of our fathers abandoned us. … The African-American culture can be very secretive when it comes to life experiences. There’s a lot of hurt and pain. … To break a cycle you have to deal with the pain of whatever trauma you’ve been through.”

Che ultimately confronts the pain of growing up without a father in a most powerful way. The reality depicted is sometimes too emotional to watch, because it’s such a personal story for all involved. The rapper, who won a Grammy for co-writing Kanye West’s hit single “Jesus Walks,” and who co-wrote the Oscar-winning “Glory” with Common, lets us in on his broken heart. And his hope.

Ultimately, Brian studies to earn his G.E.D., moves into subsidized housing, gets a steady job and deals with alcoholism one step at a time, one day at a time. The struggle is constant. But the father learns to love himself for who he is and who he can become. It’s a big step forward for both father — and son.

Break Thru Films presents a documentary directed by Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg. Running time: 93 minutes. Rated R (for language). Opens Friday at AMC River East 21.