IN MY FATHER’S HOUSE

“What do you hope to accomplish today?” an off-screen filmmaker asks her subject, the Chicago hip-hop artist Che Smith (better known as “Rhymefest,” co-writer of Kanye West’s Grammy-winning “Jesus Walks,” and more recently, the Academy Award-winning “Glory”). Smith sits in his car, preparing to meet his homeless alcoholic father Brian for the first time since his dad walked out of his life over 20 years before. “Seeing what I could be,” the famous rapper, and dedicated husband and father, tentatively replies. “I’m a piece of him…Maybe a part of why I’m here is to maybe even turn that around for him. Maybe that means something for me in the future.”

And within such a simple and profound admission rests the heart of “In My Father’s House,” the latest flick from critically acclaimed documentarians Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg. Through terrific use of home movie footage – and present-day shots rendered to evoke home movie footage – Stern and Sundberg have crafted an artistic and smartly complicated portrait of fatherhood and legacy told through the tale of an everyday hero (albeit one who grew up with Kanye). Following the strong and sensitive Smith on his powerful emotional journey, which begins when he buys his childhood home on Chicago’s South Side, the co-directors always remain unobtrusive. Smith both gives back to his community – helming a local radio show along with a safe space for kids – as well as learns from it. “75% of black children are born into single-parent homes,” he laments. His impetus to reconnect with the man who abandoned him is equal parts personal and universal.

Not to mention full of surprises. There’s a wonderful scene where Smith and his newly sobered up dad sit down for a game of chess. Smith’s father notes that chess is like life, the pieces “like your family. They can help you or they can kill you.” He then goes on to discuss protecting himself “at all costs.” Another scene, in which Smith invites both his father and son to the studio of his call-in radio show, is downright difficult to watch. One after another the callers uniformly chastise deadbeat dads. The elderly Brian listens patiently, seeming to absorb the pain of every fatherless child in Chicago into his now fragile and small frame.

Yet through this and more – including a predictable relapse and an unpredictable DNA test (Smith searches for the truth about a possible third child he’s fathered) – the idealistic rapper continues to strive to be everything to his kids that his dad wasn’t to him. Even as the frail Brian fights just to not fail his son once again. By the end Smith has grown up – as has his dad. “In My Father’s House” is a rare gem indeed – a beautiful love story, and a stunning study in letting go of romanticized expectations, and of learning how to forgive.