‘Fatherhood’ Could Have Been Iconic. Here’s Why It Wasn’t.5 min readReading Time: 4 minutes
Spoilers for Fatherhood (2021).
On Father’s Day this year, Netflix released Fatherhood, starring comedian Kevin Hart as an unexpected single father through a tragic turn of events during his daughter’s birth. The film is directed by Paul Weitz and is based on Two Kisses for Maddy: A Memoir of Loss and Love, the memoir written by the real-life Matthew Longelin chronicling his wife’s death and his experiences raising their daughter on his own.
Overall, the film received mediocre to positive reviews, with praise especially for Hart’s against-type casting and his commendable performance in a more emotional role as compared to his oeuvre. The performance he gives in this film is a demonstration of his ability to maintain the good humour in his character while reacting to tragedy in an appropriate and convincing way.
The film, however, lacked depth, and by extension also falls short of what greatness it could have been if it had made use of all the potential available to them. It missed a great opportunity to represent single fathers in a meaningful and realistic way, which would have been particularly iconic in reversing the false and unfair ‘missing Black father’ stereotype. I’m in no way saying that every film has to be socially responsible in this respect, and should be produced to serve some sort of community purpose. It’s just that the team behind Fatherhood was set up for the perfect shot, but decided not to take it anyway. And it feels utterly wasted.
The film was Netflix’s most popular film in 82 countries on opening weekend. Other than the fact that it was timed for release on Father’s Day, its premise was something that was, though simple, a rarity on screen, and that drew attention from audiences. How often do we see an African American man headlining a high-profile film as a single father? Compared to that, how often do we see (or rather, not see) African American fathers who are ostensibly absent from their on-screen childrens’ lives?
African American nuclear families have been torn apart since the dawn of slavery. While African American children are in fact statistically more likely to be born into single-parent families compared to other races in the United States, the use of this number to reduce specifically African American men to the ‘deadbeat dad’ trope in media and on screen is unfair. It’s also dismissive of the systemic racism that keeps many African American communities on the lower end of the socioeconomic ladder. Roberta Coles, professor of Sociology at Marquette University in Milwaukee, adds that the “high rates of divorce and non-marital births amongst African Americans as a group have led to the term ‘absent father’ being nearly synonymous with Black men.”
Positive representations of single fathers in mainstream media are rare. Positive representations of single African American fathers, if not African American fathers in general, are almost non-existent. It’s why I clicked on Fatherhood the moment I saw it on my Netflix homepage.
But the opportunity to tell this story was eclipsed by Hart’s PR machine — the film was a calculated manoeuvre to haul his failing reputation out of the gutter. Hart is also signed as one of the film’s producers — and so it was made with the vested interest in calibrating the fictional version of Matt Logelin to act as a remedy to Hart’s increasingly negative public image at the time. This resulted in a character that lacked nuance and texture.
While there are hints of Matt’s personal struggles, and attempts to illustrate the difficulty of being a single parent, the angles are barely explored and it always feels like we barely scratch the surface. The character is airbrushed to the point where he doesn’t feel very real, and his struggles feel superficial and unexplored. Towards the end of the second act, Matt starts to feel as if he’s beginning to stray from his fatherly duties as he starts getting more romantically involved with Swan (DeWanda Wise). Wounds are reopened when, after she has a bad fall at school, he has to pick Maddy (Melody Hurd) up from the same hospital Liz (Deborah Ayorinde) died in.
The conflict between his personal (and professional) life and his commitment to Maddy comes to a head when his guilt causes him to dump Swan in order for his daughter to remain the number one priority in his life. Unsurprisingly, this is a mistake, and the film ends with him realising that he can, in fact, balance the two. The plot, while enjoyable, is highly predictable and doesn’t incite much emotional response.
Fatherhood doesn’t attempt to flesh out the character whose extraordinary story serves as the hook for audiences. While there was, in no way, any onus on the film’s creators to produce anything more than a simply good, entertaining movie that audiences enjoyed, it’s a shame, because given what it was, it could have been so much more. With a talented A-list cast, tonnes of first-hand experience from the source material, and the budget and scale it was given, I’m disappointed that Fatherhood wasn’t more.
It could have been one to reverse the stereotypes stacked against African American men as fathers, a group that receives disproportionately negative representations, even to this day. It could have condemned the ‘missing Black father’ narrative that has permeated mainstream media and, by extension, societal perceptions and expectations for decades. It could have been a spectacular way to honour the mighty minority of single fathers from all ethnicities and cultures.
But instead, Fatherhood is only a mediocre Netflix dramedy with textbook humour and sufficiently moving emotive beats, and that will be forgotten when the current takes it away. And that’s a waste if I ever saw one.
Fatherhood (2021) starring Kevin Hart is now streaming on Netflix.