If you’ve been on Netflix, you may have come across or even watched the movie “Fatherhood.” The heartwarming film stars Kevin Hart as a single, inexperienced Black father trying to raise his daughter, who finds himself in the pursuit of love. But behind the countless laughs, tear-jerking moments and romance, “Fatherhood” offers an even more powerful message: Black fathers and their place in the media.
Black men are often portrayed as bad or absent fathers in the media, and this negative perspective has led to discriminatory legislation and policies. However, “Fatherhood” offers a more accurate perspective on Black men as fathers that helps to change the false societal narrative surrounding Black fathers.
The “absent father” myth that has enveloped Black men has permeated all facets of society. However, this myth has become commonplace in the media. Whether it be a movie like “Prison Song” or a TV show like “All American,” you don’t have to do an exhaustive search to see Black men being portrayed as bad fathers in the media.
Many believe that the “absent father” myth has unintentionally developed into what it is today. In reality, this couldn’t be farther from the truth.The origin of societal divisions around the Black family has its roots in slavery. The demonization of Black fathers and, more importantly, Black families in the United States has been meticulously constructed throughout history. Realizing the value of children born by Black women, Virginia created a law in 1662 that stated that any child born to an enslaved woman would also be considered property of their mother’s slaveholder. Further, because slave owners feared the strength of black families, certain “Slave Codes” forbade marriage among enslaved people. Slave codes were strict laws created by individual slave colonies that enslaved people had to abide by. Slave owners knew that enslaved people would take great risk for their family; they would disobey slave owners to protect their family members from harm and try to escape to join separated family members. So, ensuring that enslaved people did not have family structure was paramount to slaveholders.
Moreover, with the growing popularity of films in the early 20th century, Black men were vehemently vilified in the media. No film exemplifies this more than “The Birth of a Nation.” Released in 1915, “The Birth of a Nation” was a widely popular international hit. The film's climax involves a white woman running away from a man in blackface. Seeing no exit and fearing the black man's grip, she jumps off a clip to her death. The white woman is subsequently viewed as a martyr in the film. The image of Black men in this movie perpetuated harmful stereotypes and racism toward Black men. This film and the public response it received proved that the media could be used to form society's perspective on different ethnic groups.
More importantly, the negative representation of Black fathers in the media impacts long term structural policies and laws for Black families. Jahdziah St. Julien states the effects best in her report “A Snapshot of Black Fathers”:
“Stereotypical narratives that pathologize or caricature Black men or perpetuate the false idea that Black people are inherently different from their white counterparts result in inaccurate depictions of Black people in the media,” St. Julien wrote. “Ultimately infusing political discourse, such narratives also influence public policies and programs which not only fail to understand and meet the needs of Black families but also cause them harm.”
This is important because the stereotypical narrative and portrayal of Black fathers in the media have real world consequences that negatively affect Black families and society as a whole. These factors make “Fatherhood” all the more important. In order to combat these false historical narratives and push back on society's distorted preconceived notions about Black fathers, media such as “Fatherhood” is needed to portray an accurate image of Black fathers.
Consequently, these historical factors have contributed to the reaction that many viewers have displayed after watching “Fatherhood.” Many were shocked at seeing a Black father.
“It was frustrating on my end because of people’s reaction,” said Shawnice Johnson, a human development and family studies doctoral student and member of the Black Female Fatherhood Scholars Network. “Many people said things like, ‘Ohh, a Black father,’ like it was something new. Black fathers have always been around; it's just that society is being more honest and having more honest conversations about their involvement.”
However, this reaction to seeing a Black father involved in a child's life is not entirely unwarranted. Black fathers are more involved in many aspects of their children's lives than many other ethnic groups. A report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states, “Black fathers (70%) were most likely to have bathed, dressed, diapered, or helped their children use the toilet every day compared with white (60%) and Hispanic fathers (45%).”
So what can be done to change the false narrative that surrounds Black fathers in the media and society?
“Representation, allowing the population to speak for themselves instead of having others try to recreate or construct what they feel a Black father is,” Johnson said. “For example, with ‘Fatherhood’, Kevin Hart had a big role in creating the film, not just being an actor in it. No one knows the life of the Black father or the role that they play or the significance they have more so than (Black fathers) because they are living it.”
Representation matters in the media, but so does inclusion among writers, directors and the entire staff on films should work toward inclusivity, so the end product properly reflects the population they are portraying. So thank you Kevin Hart, Paul Weitz, Matt Logelin, Dana Stevens, Alfre Woodard and Netflix for taking a chance — a chance to right a wrong and to help change the harmful narrative that has surrounded Black fathers for centuries.