Rapper and hip-hop artist Che “Rhymefest” Smith made it big, rising out of a fatherless household in a challenging neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side to become a Grammy-winning writer and performer, collaborating with Kanye West and John Legend. (Smith co-wrote the song “Glory” from the movie “Selma.”)
So why did his life feel so empty?
One big reason is that he had not seen his father, who left the family when he was young, for 25 years. Smith finds his father living a homeless, alcoholic life. On the surface, “In My Father’s House” is the story of Smith’s attempt to rehabilitate and reconnect with his father, Brian.
But it’s really about Smith’s quest to find a kind of meaning in his life he could not realize through material success, and that creates a dimension that elevates this engaging documentary by directors Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg.
Stern and Sundberg have made documentaries about war, the criminal justice system and UFOs. In recent years, they have made “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work” and “Knuckleball!,” examining the baseball pitch through pitchers Tim Wakefield, R.A. Dickey and others. It seems Stern and Sundberg are increasingly fascinated with discovering how celebrities tick while away from the limelight, and “In My Father’s House” continues that trend.
Smith admits he was a womanizer, spent too lavishly and enjoyed his success a little too much. As the documentary opens, Smith, with his wife, Donnie, and 14-year-old son, Solomon, has purchased his childhood home, which had just popped onto the market. His concern about being a good father to Solomon stokes a desire to find his own father. Even though he hasn’t seen his dad in 25 years, he finds him rather easily, living on the streets just blocks away.
The reunion is a happy one. Smith sets up Brian in a homeless shelter that is focused on rehab and job placement, but predictably, the attempt to get sober and get a job while reuniting with his son is a bit overwhelming, and there are relapses and other problems.
Smith also struggles with responsibility; he’s been avoiding child-support payments for a daughter he had with a former girlfriend, and suddenly, after several years, insists on a paternity test. Naturally, that creates tension between Smith and Donnie.
How will it turn out? Won’t reveal that here, but suffice to say that if you can go home again, it’s a long, difficult road that requires patience, responsibility, commitment — and most of all, love.