WHERE'S DADDY? Review

Writer/director Rel Dowdell has made two previous films, both narrative features, each of which tackle relevant social issues that largely pertain to the urban community. With his third feature, Dowdell continues to put an emphasis on relevant social issues, but for the first time the filmmaker is doing so through the format of a documentary feature. In Where's Daddy? Dowdell sets out to investigate and discover the root cause of the child support issue in America-what people's problems are with it, how it is failing at its purpose, and how it can be improved. Furthermore, Dowdell goes one step further and asks the even tougher questions of why the government has intervened in such private affairs at all? Why are single mothers raising multiple children is such an epidemic? Dowdell focuses in on the black community in his hometown of Philadelphia in what he hopes to resemble a piece of the larger problem that is plaguing both the American courts system as well as societal stigmas that need to be reconfigured and altered as often times such stigmas are rendered untrue by the details of each case, but remain labeled or interpreted as such due to the broad rules of said system. As a thirty year-old white male who was raised in Arkansas, who was raised with both parents in the home, and who is now married with a three year-old daughter of my own I have no particular affiliation to or against the child support system. I don't know enough about it to hold a position on either side of the line and so if Where's Daddy? is nothing else it, at the very least, serves as an introductory course to this seeming injustice on many fronts that exists outside of my bubble. Dowdell's film paints a well-rounded portrait that attempts to elicit how many different sets of experiences can be had when it comes to a father not being able to make his court-ordered child support payments so that this notion of the punishment fitting the crime becomes present in this regard and not just the blanket punishment of jail time where it costs more to process these individuals than the total amount many of them are even behind on in their payments.

Where's Daddy? is essentially an amalgamation of several different perspectives on this subject of this seemingly infantile question that is nothing if not adult in this day and age. Sure, I know plenty of people, friends even, who are single parents and I know plenty of people who have come from broken homes or have had to go through the process of divorce themselves, but having never come to know much about child support and the systematic way in which one parent will go about accruing it from another Where's Daddy? is certainly an insightful and eye-opening look at a system that obviously has some flaws that need to be ironed out, no one is disputing that. Maybe even more enlightening though, are the interviews where Dowdell is able to discuss the deeper root of the issue: why so many children are being born and why so few relationships are working out. Near the end of his film, Dowdell talks with a pastor in hopes of shining a spiritual perspective on these questions to which Bishop James D. Robinson cites something interesting in that modern sexual relations are a recipe for disaster due to the fact that most younger people entering into these relationships don't have a solid understanding of what a real relationship needs to consist of. Whether this be due to the fact they themselves came from a single parent home and never had an example of such or are more or less only interested in having sex and not cultivating a relationship with a person around that act the ingredients for a healthy, long-lasting relationship are nowhere in the mix before leading to sex, which more times than not seems to lead to children, which then leads to a better revealing of who your partner truly is and not who your partner said they were and projected themselves to be, ultimately and inevitably leading to separation only adding to an ever-growing statistic. This isn't the only instance in the film where Dowdell is able to grapple with the more interesting terrain around the question he has posed, but it is placed at such a pivotal place in the film that it hits the emotional spot it is surely intended to. Robinson goes on to say that, "We have to turn our men into protectors again and not predators." Stating that the true need is to re-define what family is all about.

From my perspective, which again isn't worth much in this conversation I'm sure, this is truly the starting point for the ultimate change that needs to come as well as for the change I assume most people having to deal with such situations would like to come. It's a tall order, no doubt, and it will take more than a little time for this shift in world view and definition to occur, if it does at all, but if there is ever to be a true shift in the water it would need to begin by correcting as much from the beginning as is possible. Of course, this will never fully happen based simply on the fact that people are people and some people simply aren't meant to be together thus separations and divorces will occur. Marriage isn't necessarily a solution, but it is a great hope as is stated by Dr. Kathleen Walls, a clinical psychologist. Second best to this then as seems to be stated by many interviewees in Dowdell's film is that of an understanding and sound relationship between the mother and father post-separation so as to not reflect the hate or disdain for one another onto the children or through them. Anything past this is seen to be wholly destructive, demeaning, and crushing to the situation if not through the interactions of the mother and father, but in the way the legal system makes these parties feel when having to go through child support court appearances. This is glimpsed through the majority of the people Dowdell interviews in his film that have personal experience dealing with the system. It is heard through their crackling voices as they recount the memories of these times and the impact of as much is seen in the expressions they wear on their faces. All of this building to a particular interview with Dr. Ralph Smith who tells of the back and forth with his ex-wife over the custody of their child and the sickening allegations she threw out against him when their son, Brian, decided he wanted to live with his father instead of his mother. Dowdell strategically places Smith's story at the end of the second act of sorts, just before the denouement of his supportive material begins, so as to illustrate once and for all the toll such life experiences can expel on a person; even someone who might otherwise be seen as a leader and pillar of the community.

So, does Where's Daddy? get to the bottom of the child support issue in America and break down walls that might be instrumental in getting things changed? No, not necessarily, but it is by all means a conversation-starter with a multitude of interesting points and perspectives, most of which viewers will take to heart and hopefully try to implement in their own lives therefore instilling them in and passing them onto future generations. Ultimately, Where's Daddy? boils down to one reoccurring theme that can be taken away simply by listening to the dialogue in the film. One doesn't have to even necessarily witness these interactions taking place, but by listening alone it is impossible not to notice the amount of times the word responsibility is repeated and stated in separate conversations. A lesson for anyone whether still married, divorced without having to deal in custody battles, or a prime example of what Dowdell is exploring here, responsibility is key to any relationship and to making strides forward in one's life. Even if the court grants the mother custody and only gives the father the weekends the father should fight to see his children as much as the mother. The father should take his children to school as well and be present as much as the mother. This can only be achieved if the man is willing to own that responsibility. I latch onto this side of the argument and the stories because it is something I know people can change within themselves. The procedural side dealing with the justice system and such can be debated back and forth to no avail (and it kind of is in the film), but getting past this idea of child support being a part of black culture-it isn't and it shouldn't be-and down to if the people who started on this journey together, whether intentionally or unintentionally, can learn to own up and take responsibility that aforementioned shift can begin to take place; those stigmas hopefully one day washing away as well. This is all said with the awareness that there are systematic flaws when it comes to black men and the criminal justice system. I'm not one to make excuses for people, but I'm more one to try and better understand people's circumstances by trying to put myself in their shoes and that is why understanding this condition that comes with being a black man is key to understanding how to help, is key to understanding the position of the women in relationships and/or partnerships with these men, and key to me understanding my role in looking outside my bubble and recognizing such undesirable truths and how I might help. Sure, there are a few nitpicks I could talk about in terms of Where's Daddy?'s filmmaking techniques as well as certain stylistic choices, but when the message outweighs every other factor by as much as it does here those things don't seem to matter much.

Lastly, there is a barbershop sequence contained in the midst of all the one-on-one interviews that is authentic as hell and completely electrifying and could have been interjected throughout so as to create a more lively sense to the proceedings as a whole. I couldn't finish the review without mentioning it. It's pure, unfiltered, and raw in the most compelling of ways and in all the ways I'm sure Mr. Dowdell hoped his film might be.

If you're interested in seeing Where's Daddy? on the big screen and live in the area be sure to catch a screening of the film this Saturday, March 3rd, 2018 at 7:00 pm ET at the MIST Harlem theater located at 46 West 116th Street New York, NY 10026. Tickets can be purchased here.

You can also view Where's Daddy? on several streaming services including those collected here.