October 2, 2015

Teenagers on the street in Chicago recognize songwriter Che “Rhymefest” Smith, although he doesn’t have the fame of his Chicago contemporaries like Kanye West. Smith co-wrote West’s hit “Jesus Walks,” for which he won a Grammy, and “Glory” from the 2014 film Selma

Like many young black men on Chicago’s South Side, Smith grew up without a father, an experience that left him with an “emptiness,” he said. Now he has a son himself and has started fatherhood and mentoring initiatives in his neighborhood. In one moment in a new documentary, In My Father’s House, Smith talks to a young man whose brother just died: “You got someone you can talk to?” he asks the boy. “Put my number in your phone.” 

A few years ago Smith moved back into the house where he lived as a child, and where his father abandoned him. Little did Smith know that his father, Brian Tillman, was living homeless in the same neighborhood. The documentary follows their reunion, as Smith warily tries to repair their relationship, and to end his father’s reliance on alcohol. 

During the course of the story, Smith must also admit to his failures as a father. Christianity is not a significant part of the film or Tillman’s recovery, but we catch glimpses of the family praying together before a meal, and of a to-do note that says, “Read Bible (whole thing).” The story is amplified with new music from Smith, which I hope he releases with the film.

Tillman’s struggle sometimes seems impossibly hard, as he regularly runs into his old wheedling friends on the street. “If you could survive on the street and homeless, you could’ve survived with your children,” one caller tells him when Tillman comes as a guest on his son’s radio program. Recovery from addiction is hard, but is relational reconciliation any easier? In My Father’s House comes out in 20 major cities nationwide Oct. 9, a rare feat for a documentary.