By Gregory Crofton
The Hip-Hop artist Che “Rhymefest” Smith bounded down onto the floor of the movie theater and told the projectionist to turn it up. The music playing over the end credits of the film got louder. Mic in hand, Rhymefest rapped lyrics to “Lost and Found,” part of the soundtrack for a new documentary, “In My Father’s House.”
He brought the house down Tuesday night at the Nashville Film Festival screening despite the serious subject of the film. It’s a documentary about absentee fathers, broken homes and their impact on society. How it’s common, especially in big cities like Chicago, for children to grow up without a dad and then get involved in drugs and violence.
The film was directed by Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg, the same team that made the masterful and funny “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work.” Once again they have a hit on their hands except Rhymefest doesn’t have the celebrity Rivers did.
The rapper’s success has come from being a co-writer of songs for Kanye West (“Jesus Walks”) and Common Sense (“Glory” from the movie “Selma”). In the film, with the million dollars he’s earned, Rhymefest buys the modest house his father grew up in and chooses to live in it. Then he seeks out his father in an effort to get to know him and help him quit drinking. They hadn’t seen each other for 25 years. “In My Father’s House” is very personal film, one that’s well-edited, funny and entertaining. But it also tackles heavy issues like alcohol addiction, fertility and fatherhood.
Director Ricki Stern, who attended a post-screening Q & A, said capturing intimate moments that come with heavy subjects requires a close relationship with the people you’re filming. “You are not just a fly on the wall,” she said. “As you’re going along you’re trying to figure out what the themes are.” A few minutes later she added: “People say ‘Does documentary change reality?’ It does. It can’t not.”
Rhymefest said living with cameras in his life for 18 months did require vulnerability. “Ricki and I had to become family,” he said. “Part of being a great artist is to be fragile and vulnerable. … I’m just living my art.” Either way, we’re left with a sociologically important, thoughtful, and entertaining film.
“In My Father’s House” won the overall Audience Award for Best Film at the Nashville Film Festival. It also took home the Audience Award for Best Documentary Film at the festival.