As a single mom who has often struggled without the presence of my daughter’s father ( he opted out in her infancy), I’ve admittedly wondered why any father would get accolades for being a dedicated parent, something he SHOULD be doing already by virtue of the fact that he impregnated someone. It’s a job mothers perform largely without recognition outside of Mother’s Day, however I know I am not alone when I say that seeing dads spending time alone with their children, babies in arms or strapped to chests, I’m guilty of swooning a bit. While I suspect that is due to my experience parenting solo, the truth is, it’s rare to see fathers with sole custody and even more rare to see them being openly affectionate like the men of “Daddy Don’t Go” are with their children. Yet somehow, deadbeat dads have received the bulk of attention in the media. My question would perhaps carry more validity, if not for the scourge of absentee fathers dominating the public discourse on fatherhood in America.
Besides being a timely treat for a Father’s Day release via Vimeo on Demand, this film is right on time – a time in our society when, as the movie points out, “1 in 3 American children are being raised without a father.” Throughout “Daddy Don’t Go,” live action is interspersed with sobering statistics that punctuate and underscore the emotional intensity of the film’s subjects. Fathers – Alex, Nelson, Omar and Roy – have the spotlight shined on them instead of being dwarfed in the shadows of all the media attention surrounding deadbeat fathers.
Emily Abt, one of Variety Magazine’s “Top 10 Directors to Watch,” has expanded her socially conscious cannon of documentaries with “Daddy Don’t Go.” The documentary was shot over two years in intimate, shaky, handheld close-ups, inside temporary shelter homes, subways, courtrooms and often en route, on the fast paced streets of the Bronx and Harlem. The shaky camera lends an even more realistic and honest feel to the film. Sometimes the camera unexpectedly zooms in or out, or cuts away, and this seemingly corresponds to the unpredictability and chaotic nature of being a poor father in NYC. The camera mirrors the fact that circumstances in the world of these struggling fathers can, and often will change in an instant. Another shocking statistic shown in the film: “Low income families move 55% more than middle class families.”
“Daddy Don’t Go’s” fathers each struggle with issues like chronic unemployment, incarceration, and the inability to earn a living wage due to prior prison records. In a non-diegetic sound quote collage, Oprah says, “The statistics of men in prison are directly related to fatherless homes. It is an epidemic.” Abt’s background as a caseworker – her vocation prior to earning her MFA in Film at Columbia University – has surely informed her choice of subject matter for her films. Thus her mission to revolutionize the way socioeconomically disadvantaged fathers are perceived is well-informed and praiseworthy.
A prevalent motif in “Daddy Don’t Go” is the amount of affection shown. Omar and the other fathers hug, kiss, praise and protect their children, but what’s more, they are often shown grooming their children–washing and styling hair, giving baths and helping them get dressed. This powerful visual theme emerges and helps to deconstruct the mainstream narrative of the deadbeat dad. Alex of Harlem declares, “The only way I’m gonna be a deadbeat dad is if I’m dead, and somebody beats me up.” It’s a comment spoken with conviction and aptly representative of the spirit of each of the fathers in the film.
In one of many heart-melting “awwwww”-inducing scenes, Nelson and his son Brandon sit on their bed having a conversation in which Nelson pretends he can understand certain parts of what the baby is saying to him, but not others. He playfully encourages him to speak more clearly while ascribing meaning to his jiberish. It is the kind of interaction any pediatric psychologist would say is optimal for the healthy cognitive development of a child. From the beginning of the film it is well-established that what is missing from the homes in material wealth is made up for in attentiveness.
For a moment, I wondered if there was a performance element in the film, but my doubt was quickly eviscerated. The intense love in Omar’s family is enviable and very authentic. “I love my kids real hard.” he says proudly, “I feel like being a father is the only thing I’m good at.” Love is virtually pouring from the screen in pure beams of warm light. This effectively helps shift the dominant story that fathers aren’t involved with their children, and brings positive awareness to men around the country who make the decision to put their roles as fathers first.
There is a darkness hanging over the the mothers in “Daddy Don’t Go.” We are told through script on the screen that Child Services has deemed Alex Jr.’s mother unfit to parent. However when the camera is trained on Alex, he plays it down: “I’m giving his mother a break,” he says of the child’s mother’s absence. Similarly, Omar has been awarded custody of his three children, due to unsavory behavior of their mothers. Bringing to light the circumstances of the mother’s absence asks the viewer to consider this issue from angles previously relatively ignored.
Abt’s thoughtfully constructed film almost shames the viewer, telling us that we have long needed to collectively shift our focus from irresponsible, unresponsive fathers, to the struggling men in our communities who need our support and attention as they try to parent within a governmental system and society that does not give low income fathers an easy way to go. Abt does great work capturing the various aspects of each dad’s unrelenting love for his kids, and subtly draws poignant parallels between the group of fathers, while gracefully telling the stories of their individual plights.
Omar Epps and Malik Yoba are fathers, actors and the Executive Producers of “Daddy Don’t Go.” The film is being released on Vimeo on Demand today, Father’s Day, June 19, 2016. Watch a trailer below, and follow the link within the video player to rent or buy the film.