By Peter Keough GLOBE CORRESPONDENT OCTOBER 08, 2015
As Che “Rhymefest” Smith points out in Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg’s engaging, trim, and moving documentary “In My Father’s House,” 75 percent of black kids are raised in a home with a single parent. Most of these children are fatherless. The statistics for a happy life are not good, but some grow up to be president of the United States, like Barack Obama. Some, like Smith, grow up to become rap musicians, winning a Grammy (for co-writing Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks”) and an Oscar (for co-writing “Glory,” from the movie “Selma”). Like these two, many are curious and driven to find the paternal piece missing in their lives.
Smith’s father, Brian Tillman, deserted him and his teenage mother. His mother had drug problems and her parents ended up raising Smith. Smith recalls sporadically seeing his dad, going to a movie or a ballgame, enjoying the attentions of a father — even one stinking of beer.
After having some success in his career and settling down with a supportive wife (Smith has his own checkered past, having fathered three children and perhaps a fourth), he decided that in order to resolve his failings as a parent he would have to reconnect with the man who abandoned him.
First, he bought the Chicago home referred to in the film’s title, a pleasant single-family residence where, as Smith learns later, Tillman was abused by his own father. Could that experience have contributed to Tillman’s failings? Unfortunately that possibility is left unexplored.
Next, Smith tracks down Tillman, who’s been living on the streets for 20 years. He looks bad. He smells bad. He talks ragtime, alternately wheedling and belligerent. Nonetheless, Smith insists on rehabilitating him, finding him a home and a job, making him into a father.
At first, all goes smoothly. Then there is that ominous “One Month Later” title card.
Stern and Sundberg luck out having the story unfold for them as if scripted. Sometimes it seems like it was (they and Pax Wassermann are credited as writers). Even so, though it brings limited insight to the problem of absent fathers in the black community, “In My Father’s House” tells a story of loneliness, abandonment, anger, and joy that all can relate to.
IN MY FATHER’S HOUSE
Directed by Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg. Written by Stern, Sundberg, and Pax Wassermann. Starring Che “Rhymefest” Smith, Brian Tillman. At Boston Common. 93 minutes. R (language).
Peter Keough can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org