/ 19 June 2022

At the movies, not all fathers are created equal

Ice Cube and Laurence Fishburne in Boyz N The Hood (1991).

When you look at the portrayal of fatherhood along racial lines in Hollywood, you can see fundamental differences between the characterisation of black fatherhood vis-à-vis white fatherhood. 

Movies based in the “hood”, such as Boyz N The Hood (1991), Juice (1992), Menace 2 Society (1993), South Central (1993), Sugar Hill (1994) and Above the Rim (1994) may have centred on the violent exploits of black misguided young men toting guns, peddling drugs and being a nuisance in their neighbourhoods. But a secondary plot in all of them is the absence of positive male role models, as well as the failures of those present.

In Boyz N The Hood, three friends grow up in different circumstances that eventually dictate how their lives turn out as they approach adulthood. Tre’s mother sends him to live with his father, Furious Styles (Laurence Fishburne), when he gets in trouble at school as a teen. Her hopes are that his father is better equipped in disciplining him and getting his life in order. Tre’s two friends on the other hand, half-brothers Ricky and Doughboy, stay behind and are raised by their single mother in the treacherous neighbourhood of South Central, Los Angeles. 

Tre grows up to be more astute, thanks to his father’s hands-on upbringing, while Doughboy and Ricky’s paths are shrouded in misfortune. Director John Singleton does an incredible job of exposing how dangerous it is for black sons to grow up without their fathers.

Fishburne’s portrayal of Furious Styles remains iconic to this day, not only because of the outer aesthetics of the role but more so because of what the character meant for black society in America. It is a character illustrative of what responsible black fatherhood could be. Furious Styles is a father who is, to all intents and purposes, angry but instead of retaliation, takes that anger and channels it into something positive. 

There’s a part in the movie where he expounds on the connection between gentrification and gang violence, as part of the many lessons he imparts to his son and his friends, which is the crowning achievement of the intellect he exudes in the film. But he represents the duality demanded by black fatherhood, which is to be able to fire a gun at a home intruder on the one hand, and to possess the wisdom to counsel someone with experience outside the hood on the other. 

All the while having a tight grip on the ones you love the most because the moment you slack, you could lose them to the abyss.

Steve Martin and Denzel Washington, perhaps the most equally yoked pair of seasoned actors to play father roles in numerous acclaimed films, illustrate this dichotomy between the portrayal of white fatherhood versus black fatherhood. Martin has played father roles that have been given more nuance, imagination and general ease of life, compared to the often tough, stoic and sometimes unscrupulous father roles Washington has taken on. 

White fatherhood is afforded the luxury to be fun, easy-going, quirky and curious, whereas black fatherhood is pigeonholed as a serious, tumultuous and rigid endeavour. That is, if it’s even portrayed as present in the first place.

In 1989’s Parenthood, Martin plays the role of Gil Buckman, a well-off sales executive who is married with three children. The thing that troubles Gil the most is trying to balance his family life and thriving career. On the family front, he has to contend with his eldest son, Kevin, having emotional problems and thus needing therapy, as well as his two younger children, Taylor and Justin, who seem to both have issues as well. 

Gil’s conflicted and he starts to blame himself, while questioning his abilities as a father. He views his children’s shortcomings as a direct consequence of his own deficiencies as a father. This worry is exacerbated by his wife, Karen, becoming pregnant with their fourth child, which plunges Gil into further apprehension.

In 2002’s John Q (below), Washington plays John Quincy Archibald. Similar to Gil in Parenthood, John has a family, albeit much smaller, as he only has one child. Another similarity is that, just like one of Gil’s children who needs  medical attention, John’s only son also needs medical attention in the form of an operation, which turns out to be a crucially needed heart transplant.

As if this is not enough, John finds out that the medical insurance he has his family on will not pay for the expensive medical procedure his son desperately needs and, to make matters worse, he has been laid off from the factory job he had. With no options, desperate and fresh out of luck, John decides to hold the hospital — with patients and staff still inside — hostage, demanding that his son is assisted by any means necessary.

These two performances paint two completely different pictures of fatherhood in the face of taxing family issues. To start with, white fatherhood is presented as complex and multi-faced. Gil’s children have issues, but these are issues that can be solved with therapy. As a father, Gil has the time to self-introspect within a contained and stable environment, as to what could be at the root of his family issues. He has a functional support system in the form of his extended family to soundboard his insecurities when he starts doubting his parenting skills, who in turn offer advice, financial solutions, as well as much needed reassurance of his aptitude as a father. 

John Q faces all of his hardships alone and he hardly ever has time to be vulnerable to anyone. As much as he tries his best to cultivate a happy, fun family life, the tragedy of his son’s illness catapults him to defence mode, where he has to toughen up and find quick solutions. He hits a brick wall each time he elects to be civil in finding a resolution, until he has no choice but to lash out and take matters into his own hands. This is what black fatherhood has to contend with.

1991’s romantic comedy Father of the Bride offers yet another look into this specific kind of white fatherhood. This time Martin plays George Banks, who is the owner of a successful athletic shoe company in San Marino, California. His 22-year-old daughter Annie, having just graduated from college in Europe, returns with an announcement that she is engaged to be married. This shocks George as he struggles to come to terms with the fact that his only daughter is about to start her own life as a married woman.More than anything else, George is frustrated by the amount of money he has to spend in order to cater for his daughter’s upcoming wedding. 

On the other hand, Washington makes another turn as a father in Spike Lee’s 1998 sport drama, He Got Game. He plays a “has been” talented basketball player, Jake Shuttleworth, now father to a son, Jesus Shuttleworth (played by real life basketball NBA star Ray Allen), who is ranked the top high school basketball player in the US and is about to start college. Jake is imprisoned for accidentally killing his wife, Jesus’ mother, and while in prison, he is given a lifeline. The governor allows him a week-long parole, while giving him the task of convincing his son, Jesus, to join the governor’s alumni college “Big State”. The governor promises to reduce Jake’s sentence if he can deliver his son’s signature.

Once again, we see Martin and Washington play fathers who are two polar opposite representations of fatherhood. The white father, George, in Father of the Bride, is a financially astute figure whose biggest worry in life is that his daughter is getting married — into a filthy rich family, might I add. He is losing sleep over the realisation that he has to foot the bill in order for his her to have the wedding of her dreams. 

Through it all though, he is still the quirky, loving and doting father to his daughter and every conflict that arises is resolved amicably without any love lost. 

Jake, however, is literally fighting for his life and the system has him up against the wall, so much so that he has to barter with his own son. A son whom he already has a fraught relationship with. Black fatherhood is steeped in trauma and in order to resolve that trauma, it is almost impossible to escape further scarring, not only to oneself as a father, but that is almost guaranteed to be the only thing black fathers pass on to their black sons. Black fatherhood rarely knows happy endings.

We see these burdened representations of black fatherhood in Hollywood, that is if we’re lucky to see present black fathers at all. The 1990s were inundated with movies that mostly explored the effects of black fatherhood absenteeism or some form of black family dysfunction. For many, this seemed like a deliberate attempt at portraying black fatherhood in a negative light because most of these movies did very little in showing America’s socio-economic systemic failings in the 1970s, which played a major role in the breakdown of the black American family.

Hollywood affords white fathers a tenderness rarely seen with black fathers. The father (J.K Simmons) in 2007’s Juno, about a young girl who falls pregnant after one innocent childish experiment with sex, is incredibly calm, warm and supportive after him and his wife are informed of the pregnancy by the daughter, Juno. 

If we juxtapose this with Washington’s Troy in 2016’s Fences, we see a major difference. The father in Juno appears to be wiser, as well as warmer and with better instincts and a much quicker sense of wit and humour, which is a far cry from the tough, authoritative disciplinarian that is Troy in Fences. Granted these representations are influenced by a few other factors other than race — such as the societal mores of the times being depicted.

However, time isn’t that much of a factor because one of the most cited portrayals of exemplary fatherhood remains the one given by Gregory Peck in 1962’s To Kill a Mockingbird, which was set in the 1930s. Adapted from author Harper Lee’s critically acclaimed novel of the same name, it is a movie that houses one of the most beloved portrayals of fatherhood in cinema. Atticus Finch is a model father, graceful with his children as he is firm. He dotes on them but is incredibly shrewd in navigating tough and uncomfortable conversations around race and inequality in order to help his children make sense of life, their community and of themselves. He is a morally upright man who extends his kindness and nobility to everyone. 

While these are essential qualities that every father, and every man for that matter, should aspire to, it is not surprising that Hollywood would have a white father as the conduit.