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The title query of the documentary Where's Daddy? is one too often asked by children in African-American households, and director Rel Dowdell tackles how the mechanism of the child support system contributes to that--but not in the way one typically expects. The viewpoint here is squarely from one generally never considered: that of the fathers who are not the stereotypical deadbeats, but rather ones who do want to be a presence and provider for their children yet are stifled by the system's crippling financial demands. Dowdell appears as on-camera interviewer to a spectrum of African-American men ranging from the everyday likes of doctors and teachers to more vaunted figures from sports and entertainment, such as hip-hop artist Freeway and former NFL player Fred Barnett, and despite their disparate backgrounds and income brackets, from their testimonies a patterns emerge and a common thread is revealed: how family court judgments are often stacked against African-American men.
The film amplifies the too-often unheard voices of these men, and their testimonies are indeed powerful and affecting. If some of the interviews tilt toward bitterness, any unpleasantness is forgiven by the raw, genuine, unfiltered honesty and palpable emotion in the first-hand accounts of their experiences and ongoing trials, both literal and figurative. While unabashed in its empathy for the men, Dowdell does offer balance by including neutrality in the form of objectively informative interviews with experts such as attorneys and psychologists; and conversations, albeit too few, with mothers who receive benefits from the child support system. All of this is enlightening, but where the film strikes dramatic sparks of life is during the few segments featuring impassioned and intelligent discussion and debate between men and women of varying and conflicting viewpoints, particularly a lively barbershop-set confab that manages to corral into the mix an unsuspecting white congressional candidate making neighborhood campaign rounds. With more scenes of such reasoned yet no less charged dialogue, the film would have offered even more food for thought. Even more still would have been served had there been some added insight from whom the system is supposedly designed to help--the children. Some perspective from some now-grown individuals whose upbringings were affected by child support issues within their families would have more fully rounded out the picture. However, as Dowdell's film stands, it's an important and necessary look at a sensitive subject from an angle that too few care to pay attention to, let alone address.