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The story behind “Daddy Don’t Go”

Daddy Don’t Go is a gritty, much-lauded documentary set in New York City that captures two years in the lives of four racially diverse, economically disadvantaged fathers – Omar Kennedy, Alexander Charles Jr., Roy Puntervold and Nelson Serrano – as they fight to defy the odds stacked against them.

And these odds are very real: according to the U.S. Census Bureau, men living in poverty are more than twice as likely to become absent fathers than their middle-class peers.

The film has screened at over 35 film festivals, winning multiple Best Documentary awards, including at the American Black Film Festival and Urbanworld Film Festival.

The Dad Website caught up with the film’s director, New York mother-of-two Emily Abt, for some insights into the making of the film.

INSPIRATION

My father was himself fatherless, so from an early age I learned to appreciate the importance of fatherhood – and my father’s challenge to be the dad he never had himself. Later, as a New York City caseworker, I saw, first-hand, how the “deadbeat dad” stereotype did a great disservice to impoverished men struggling to navigate parenthood.

The negative lens through which urban fathers are currently viewed can only be undone by work from many angles – political, legal and social. The Daddy Don’t Go team wanted to contribute to this effort by bringing new and positive images of urban fatherhood to a national audience.

EARLY DAYS

Daddy Don’t Go began in early 2012 with expansive research on disadvantaged fathers and the various cultural and sociopolitical challenges that low-income families face. The team studied the works of sociologists including Kathryn Edin, William Julius Wilson, Ronald Mincy, and Kenneth Braswell, who are thought-leaders on fatherlessness and urban poverty.

Following this initial research, we reached out to father-friendly organizations in New York City such as The Bronx Defenders, The Osborne Association and Forestdale Inc. to cast the four fathers. This process took six months and concluded in January 2013 when production began. We followed our subjects for over two years, capturing over 300 hours of footage.

THE FATHERS

  • Alex, 26, is a single father of West Indian descent who lives with his toddler son in a decaying Harlem shelter. “I gotta be dead or someone would have to beat me up for me to be a deadbeat dad,” says Alex when asked if he fears being separated from his son. Alex keeps Junior out of the foster care system but then faces a new challenge to his family’s well-being: possible jail time.
  • Nelson, 27, is a former Latin King gang member and full-time daddy to his toddler son and two girls from his partner Rebecca’s previous relationships. Nelson is adamant about staying away from “street life” even in the face of unemployment: “It’s real hard out here to get a job. Sometimes I feel like going back to my old ways but I choose not to. It’s not just me anymore, I have a family.”
  • Roy, 29, is an ex-offender who has full custody of his toddler son Caiden. Roy and Caiden live with his parents as Roy tries to overcome his criminal past as well as a troubled relationship with his own father. Roy is determined to raise his own son differently than the way he grew up: “A 16-year-old doesn’t catch a life-sentence for no reason… I won’t let my son have demons like I did.”
  • Omar, 36, has full custody of three children with special needs. He strives to prove to the judge in Bronx Family Court that he is fit to parent despite multiple challenges. When Omar feels that his children are being jeopardized by his romantic relationship, he is faced with an impossible decision. “I feel like being a father is the only thing I’m good at and that’s what makes me not give up.”

FUNDING

In November 2013, we launched our Kickstarter campaign and successfully raised almost $83,400 in only 30 days with contributions from over 600 backers. The success of this campaign, along with grants from foundations including the Jerome Foundation, the New York State Council on the Arts and the Yip Harburg Foundation allowed us to complete production. In June 2014, we began post-production on the film, which was completed in August 2015.

WHY NYC?

We specifically chose New York City as the backdrop for the film because of its high rate of fatherless households, especially among minority populations: 54 per cent of African-American children and 43 per cent of Latino children in New York City grow up in fatherless households. We also had unprecedented access to film in both family and criminal courts in the Bronx due to our partnership with the Bronx Defenders as well as tireless work from our pro-bono attorneys at the DLA Piper law firm. The fathers in Daddy Don’t Go live throughout the greater New York metropolitan area: Nelson and Omar live in the Bronx; Alex in Harlem; and Roy on Long Island.

54 per cent of African-American children and 43 per cent of Latino children in New York City grow up in fatherless households…

A SOCIETAL EPIDEMIC

Many of the nation’s top sociologists and policy makers consider fatherlessness to be the most pressing issue facing American families today. The U.S. Census reports that one in three children in America grow up without a father, placing them at a significantly higher risk to live in poverty, do poorly in school and run afoul of the criminal justice system.

At the same time, many systems, such as family court, favour mothers. The role of the father needs to be recognized for its importance by society and its systems, as well as by family members themselves.

THE ‘DEADBEAT DAD’ STEREOTYPE

Public discourse on fatherless households has led to the perpetuation of a stereotype that sociologists refer to as the “hit-and-run” father, also commonly referred to as the “deadbeat dad.” These are men who, as Kathryn Edin writes, are perceived to “run away, selfishly flee, [and] act like boys rather than men.” The inherent assumption in this generalization is that society’s increasing acceptance of these “deadbeat dads” has contributed to America’s fatherlessness epidemic.

But as a case worker in New York City, I saw much more nuance in the lives of economically disadvantaged fathers, including the fact that their decisions were often contingent on their socioeconomic circumstances and not strictly the result of selfish or childish motivations. Daddy Don’t Go reveals a far more nuanced reality, and the devotion of Alex, Nelson, Roy and Omar shatter the stereotype and redefine what it means to be a good father for all men.

Alex, Nelson, Roy and Omar shatter the deadbeat dad stereotype and redefine what it means to be a good father for all men.

HOW TO SEE IT

Daddy Don’t Go is currently airing and streaming on STARZ . To purchase copies with educational and institutional licenses, click here.

We want Daddy Don’t Go to be accessible to everybody who want to see it – if you can’t afford our distributor’s rates please contact our Outreach Coordinator at lauren@purelandpictures.com and we’ll extend a discount.

SELECTED REVIEWS

“Every American must see this film. Why is it so heartbreakingly hard – even impossible – to be a decent dad in America if you’re poor? Daddy Don’t Go should sear the nation’s conscience.”
Kathryn Edin, Bloomberg Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University

Daddy Don’t Go paints a necessary mosaic of fatherhood through the inspiring stories of four New York City fathers. As an agency, Fathers Incorporated is strengthen by films like this. Daddy Don’t Go gives voice and context to the much needed work of building stronger families by investing in building stronger fathers.”
Kenneth Braswell, Executive Director, Fathers Incorporated

“In her clear-sighted portrait, Abt maturely and poignantly captures the reality of (her subjects)… A depiction of not only paternal devotion and sacrifice, but also the difficulty of breaking cycles of personal and parental neglect and trauma, this stirring film derives much of its power from its non-judgmental, warts-and-all perspective on its subjects…This nuanced and heartrending work should prove extremely attractive to prominent cable outlets.”
Nick Schager, Variety

“This new film from director Emily Abt is arguably one of the year’s most touching documentaries. Abt’s film is non-judgemental, instead it offers up four singular stories with a great deal of respect and tenderness given to each respective narrative. It’s an emotional piece of work, but it’s one that had to be made and now needs to be seen.”
Joshua Brunsting, Criterion

Daddy Don’t Go deftly weaves together the forces impacting the lives of disadvantaged fathers.”
 Professor William Julius Wilson, Harvard University

“A powerfully moving – and at times heartbreaking – film. Fatherhood is seldom portrayed in this light: men fighting to care for their children against challenging circumstances and in staunch defiance of stereotype.”
Professor Elena Conis, University of California, Berkeley




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