One of the things that always has set the Chicago school of hip-hop apart is its willingness to look at issues in the black community on a much deeper and more universal level than the gang-banging clichés and cheap nihilism dispensed by many other rappers. And while Che Smith, better known as Rhymefest, hasn’t quite reached the level of stardom as peers such as Kanye West, Lupe Fiasco, and Chance the Rapper, he arguably has done more than any of them to live the more positive values espoused in the best of his lyrics (though he’s not beyond the occasional foray into darker turf).
Directed by veteran New York documentary filmmakers Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg (Joan Rivers—A Piece of Work, The Devil Came On Horseback, Knuckleball!), In My Father’s House focuses on Rhymefest, drawing heavily on his music, and it’s steeped in hip-hop culture. But it’s not a hip-hop movie per se—at least not in the way that fabulously successful Straight Outta Compton is.
Flush with the success that came from co-writing “Jesus Walks” with Kanye and signing a lucrative major-label deal of his own (which, unfortunately, failed to produce anywhere near the attention that his 2006 debut Blue Collar deserved), Rhymefest bought a lovely home on the South Side of Chicago to raise his family. His father had grown up in the same house, but he was estranged from his son through most of the child’s formative years, winding up as an alcoholic living on the streets and in shelters only a few blocks away.
After 25 years, Rhymefest set out to reunite with Brian Tillman, moving from his initial curiosity and anger to concern to finally helping rehabilitate the man. To be sure, there are challenges and setbacks aplenty. All of them unfold before the directors’ unobtrusive cameras over the course of a year, and this footage is intercut with home movies, photos, and images of life on a South Side that often goes unseen while news crews focus on the eruptions of violence in “Chiraq.”
The story may sound like the plot of a hackneyed Lifetime movie. But the film is real and gripping in a way that reality television rarely is, in part because the directors never seem to be molding the proceedings to fit a set arc, but even more significantly because Rhymefest and Tillman are very charismatic but relatable people whose unfettered personalities are the core of the movie’s appeal and its hopeful message.
A brief note at the start makes the connection to the bigger issue: The number of single-parent households has tripled since 1960 and it’s a particular problem in African-American communities, where 75 percent of children are now born without a father present in their lives. But ultimately this is the inspiring story of two men and the importance of family and community, with all of the struggles that maintaining both entail.
In My Father’s House (Directed by Ricki Stern & Annie Sundberg)
Rating on the 4-star scale: 3 stars.