December 28, 2006
The good fathers: African American filmgoers overjoyed at â€˜Happynessâ€™
By Dwayne Campbell
Inquirer Staff Writer
Entertainer and businessman Fatin Dantzler has long been a Will Smith fan, following the career of the Philadelphia megastar from hip-hop to television to big-budget movies such as Ali, Men in Black, and I, Robot.
But what Dantzler takes the most pride in is the actor's role in The Pursuit of Happyness, Smith's latest film, which opens today with heavy buzz, especially among African American fathers like Dantzler.
In the movie, Smith (nominated for an acting Golden Globe yesterday) isn't a superhero saving the world, but a man totally devoted to his son, an image that many black fathers say is seen in the media too infrequently.
"It's been a long time since a movie has touched me like this. I saw a lot of myself in him," said Dantzler, 33.
Dantzler, who is half of the R&B group Kindred the Family Soul, watched a screening of the film at the Ritz Five this week with his 7-year-old son, Aquil.
"Unfortunately, this isn't what we see most times," Dantzler said. "Art often depicts reality, and the reality Hollywood directors see is what most people see in the media, black men in negative roles. Good black fathers don't see themselves on the news."
The portrayal of African American men in the media has long been the subject of intense discussions: in scholarly journals, among the men themselves, and in the same news that's frequently lambasted for showing black men mainly in stereotypically negative roles such as criminals and deadbeat dads.
The talk took on new life this year with the release of books such as the Urban Institute's Black Males Left Behind, which cited statistics indicating that many African American men, unlike black women, were falling below basic education, employment and livable-income levels.
And Bill Cosby's 2004 indictment of some black fathers, whom he berated as men who "dropped the sperm cell" and then moved on, still drives much of the discussion on African American parenthood.
Such negative representations enrage fatherhood advocates, who note that, as in any race, good African American fathers exist in far larger numbers than poor ones.
The Pursuit of Happyness is based on the true story of Chris Gardner, a San Francisco man who overcame a plethora of obstacles (loss of money and home while juggling an intense stockbrokerage internship) to find success for himself and his son (portrayed by Smith's son Jaden Christopher Syre Smith). Here, it's the mother (played by Thandie Newton) who buckles under the pressure and walks away.
"The good images are hard to find," said Kofi Asante, director of the Philadelphia Comprehensive Center for Fathers, a resource center. "Most of what we see are shows of brute force with mack daddies or drug dealers. We are scholars, we are musicians, we are teachers... . We are in every position that's vital to the American existence, and more of that needs to be shown."
Christopher Bracey, an associate professor of law and African and African American Studies at Washington University in St. Louis, says the film appears to have struck a chord, prompting numerous Internet discussions about stereotypes, fatherhood, and black male experiences.
What the film does, Bracey says, is cinematically demonstrate black men's "capacity to be fully human - having caring, loving qualities most people take for granted. That's been the struggle from the beginning, to be accepted as fully human."
Experts say films have generally shown black characters serving as fathers to varying degrees, but around the time of the blaxploitation films in the early '70s, and later in the 1980s, there seemed to be many more negative roles.
"You began to see the black man who is irresponsible and who was coolly indifferent to fatherhood or outright hostile to the idea of fatherhood," said Marc Lamont Hill, a Temple University assistant professor of urban education.
"Alternately, what you'll see is a string of single mothers. It's a broader understanding of black men as oversexed, lazy, immoral. When you add this up the group doesn't equal good fatherhood and it allows us to condemn them."
And so, many black fathers are saying, Pursuit, with its big star and acknowledgment of the quiet majority of hardworking family men, comes at a good time.
Eric Stephens, 49, of Lansdale, liked the film's exploration of "corporate culture" as a window into how some African Americans exist as minorities in a demanding workplace, while maintaining a family structure at home.
Smith "didn't take his personal things to work, he was able to separate them out and get the job done," Stephens said. "And often you have to be three times as good, and he proved that he was."
Mel Carpenter, of West Oak Lane, said the film showed "how important education was. I'd like to see more of that."
Carpenter watched the movie with his son, Craig, 35, who called Pursuit a "rarity."
"There are plenty of black men that struggle, constant struggle, but there are many black men that contribute to their families, to their communities," Craig Carpenter said. "But that's not a story that's ever told."
That may be changing, some experts say. As a rebuttal to negative impressions of African American men (in news coverage of urban violence and in popular street-lit "baby daddy done me wrong" books), other recent publications and films have celebrated black fathers.
Though fatherhood may not be the central theme, many films, whether Love Jones or the 'hood flicks of the 1990s, have "redemptive representations of black fathers and black people in general," says Hill.
When Philadelphia lawyers Stephana I. Colbert and Valerie I. Harrison solicited submissions for their book Color Him Father: Stories of Love and Rediscovery of Black Men, they were inundated with positive stories.
"The hard part was in paring them down to 35," Colbert said of the book published in May. "All of us took away positive experiences from our fathers. The important piece was we didn't believe this was the exception."
A similar idea was behind the June launch of Proud Poppa, a North Plainfield, N.J.-based magazine with a mission to "celebrate, elevate and replicate fatherhood success principles in the black community."
"The Chris Gardner story is really a dramatic one, but there are countless stories about black men like Gardner that run under the radar," said Poppa publisher Shawn Dove, 44. "They may not go on to become millionaire stockbrokers, but they are at home being responsible fathers."
Contact staff writer Dwayne Campbell at 215-854-5315 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
"Moving Upstream" is the newsletter of the Virginia Sexual & Domestic Violence Action Alliance. The theme of the current issue is men as partners in primary sexual violence prevention.
Download it in pdf format at: