When you start with a humanizing premise, there’s nowhere to go but up.
Documentaries that present solutions, not just observations, should be lauded and rewarded. That’s why praise has been bestowed on this heartwarming film and its mission to reunite daughters and their incarcerated dads. Bring a tissue when you see it. Maybe a whole box.
“My dad can’t come to the father/daughter dance because he’s in jail,” said one disappointed young girl at the Girls for Change Leadership Academy in Virginia. But she had a suggestion, “What if we had the dance in the jail.” And so, it began. A sheriff was asked to let a daughter/dad dance take place in his prison. He approved, it happened and that auspicious event in 2013 blossomed into the “Date with Dad” prison rehabilitation program.
First-time doc director Angela Patton, CEO of Girls for Change, teamed with video music director Natalie Rae (Leon Bridges: Bad Bad News) and they documented the journey of four young girls looking forward to attending a prom in a Washington D.C. prison. Aubrey, Santana, Raziah, and Ja’Ana are anxious as they prepare for the event. Their dads, Keith, Mark, Alonzo and Frank, are twice as nervous.
The men attend educational and consciousness-raising therapy sessions for 10 weeks to prepare for the big reunion. They confess their apprehensions, hopes and ambitions as they study fatherhood and look back on their own lives. One laments that he isn’t present in his tween daughter’s life. As a 16-year-old, he’d impregnated her 14-year-old mother whose own dad was not around. He thinks if her father had been home policing her potential boyfriends, they might not have become teen parents. The dangers that lurk when fathers are absent are real to him. Another wishes he could witness his daughter’s growth: “Everything I wanted to do, she’s doing. Everything I wanted to be, she is.” Another confesses, he doesn’t know how to dance.
The girls express, anger, fear, envy and sadness as they yearn for their dads’ presence. Despair pushes one youngster into wanting to jump off a roof. The parents and children all need understanding, forgiveness and healing. Fortunately, they have a guardian angel, an auntie. The shaman-like Angela Patton encourages the children, counsels the weary mothers and assures the men that they’re needed: “Our daddies are our mirrors that we reflect back on when we decide about what type of man we deserve.”
Cinematographer Michael “Cambio” Fernandez’s invisible camerawork puts you in the center of the men’s discussion groups, on the collect calls from prison and in homes where kids reveal their deepest secrets. A group shot of the fathers in orange jumpsuits is sobering. A group shot of them in suits and ties, like they’re at an HBC fraternity reunion, is humanizing. You’re watching their rehabilitation in real time. These precious moments are judiciously assembled and clipped together by the filmmakers and editor Troy Josiah Lewis. Their only questionable creative decision is not cutting more of the post event footage.
During sensitive moments, sweet cello music (composer Kelsey Lu) plays. During reflective scenes, songs like “Happen,” by British singer/songwriter Sampha, fill the air with their deeply felt lyrics. In a haunting tenor voice, he croons: “You’re too scared to show me love. ‘Cause you’re too fresh with the scars… I can’t let this happen again. I found my love and I don’t wanna lose it again.”
Audiences will love all the girls, especially the extremely bright Aubrey who was around five years old during the filming. All the dads become leading men in their own movies and their metamorphoses are on view. That big day, when the daughters and fathers meet, hug, dance and exchange feelings is when viewers who’d previously dabbed their eyes with a few tissues will grab a bunch.
Daughters puts a face on those affected by incarceration. Children, parents and families all trying to find their way back to the center of life. People learning lessons and gaining wisdom. When one father says, “The streets don’t love us. Our kids love us,” you know that they’re all headed in the right direction.
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Visit Film Critic Dwight Brown at DwightBrownInk.com.