Modern American popular traditions break Mother’s Day down to a day off for mom with breakfast in bed and the laundry folded; for Father’s Day, dad gets to play with the new gas grill, catch a live ball game, enjoy that 3’inch thick steak (when he knows he shouldn’t). Dad’s induldged and mom’s pampered.
As I was thinking of Father’s Day, my mind drifted back to a series that broadcast on PBS titled “Africa.” It’s one of the few series about the continent that features people, not animals. In the 2nd episode, “Dessert Odyssey,” viewers are introduced to Adam Illius, a member of the semi-nomadic Tuareg people living in Timia a village in northern Niger. At the time of the filming, Adam was nine years old and about to set off with his father, uncles and other men from the village in a family-run salt caravan across the dessert. This trek would be made by camel. They will collect the salt in Biskra and sell it at market in Zinder. It will also be Adam’s test as to whether he can meet the responsibilities of a caravan leader. The camel trek will take them 6 months to cross 400 miles. Along the way Adam’s uncles set up surprises to scare the youth. These tests will build his confidence and courage. Adam is up for the challenge and the men in the caravan will not accept failure on either side to guarantee a safe and successful journey. The entire community’s survival depends on it. If Will Smith and company were inspired by Adam’s story for “After Earth” (a father/son sci fi feature starring Will and his son Jaden), it would be Adam’s determination to get his camel and the caravan safely across the dessert. But unlike your average hero movie, Adam is not alone. Adam’s uncles and father will be part of that community of men in this vast testing ground that will make for a happy ending…that includes the film crew.
The “Africa” series was a co-production between WNET and National Geographic. I asked, Jennifer Lawson co-executive producer, if she knows how Adam and his family are fairing as we hear news about the Tuareg, and Al Quaeda in Mali and along the Mali/Niger border. So far no official reports have indicated trouble near Adam’s village. Jennifer hasn’t been in contact with the village in some time, but estimates Adam is in his twenties now. Adam is a man, maybe a father.
Ironically I finally got to see Rashaad Ernesto Green‘s first feature-length film “Gun Hill Road” Friday on DVD. I say “ironic” because I didn’t plan to watch the film with Father’s Day looming on the calendar or in my mind. Maybe it’s “coincidence.” The film stars Esai Morales as Enrique Michael Rodriguez, fresh out of prison from a 3 year sentence to find that his only son and namesake, Michael (newcomer Harmony Santana) is transgendered, and his wife (Judy Reyes) has found a new love. From prison Dad has come away with more demons around sexuality, masculinity, and fewer opportunities to pull a life back together. This makes “Gun Hill Road” Enrique’s story. It’s a story about his imperfect struggle to be the father he never had and the father he wants to be to a son that no longer exists — at least as Enrique would want him to exist. It takes a strong actor to keep Enrique human. In less capable hands, Enrique would’ve been Michael’s worst nightmare; a bully monster dad. But Esai refuses to dehumanize the character; like the old saying, “…he was somebody’s baby once.”
Troubled fathers who desire to be part of their children’s lives exist. Incarceration and the prison industry have put a steel wall between them and any hope for reconcilation; most important, reform. Back in the day, social stigmas were prominent for persons who served jail time. But there were blue collar jobs with a liveable wage (and affordable living standards) to get back on your feet. Keep quiet about the jail stuff, ask God for forgiveness, and stay out of trouble and you and your family can have a future. I’ll put a link here to a wonderful program, Hope House, founded by Carol Fenneley that works to strenghthen the bonds between children and their fathers incarcerated far from home.
Depending on your age, the “Gun Hill Road’s” ending may leave you wondering — if Enrique takes steps to understand his son’s pain (baby steps maybe), will Michael/Vanessa ever take the steps to understand his/her father’s.