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Patt Morrison asks: Omar Epps

Patt Morrison asks: Omar Epps
Omar Epps attends the NBCUniversal 2016 upfront presentation on May 16 in New York. (Slaven Vlasic / Getty Images)

On the nation's festive calendar, Father's Day arrived late -- more than 50 years after Mother's Day got a presidential blessing. Since then, the predictable blitz of neckties and sports gear for dad has almost caught up with the sentimental deluge of flowers and chocolates for mom. But: fewer than half of American kids now live in traditional nuclear American families, and as President Obama has pointed out, that figure is even lower for black children. For poor and working-class fathers trying to keep their families together, the odds are tough and the battle is relentless. It is their story, the story of four dads, black, brown and white, that's told in "Daddy Don't Go." It's a documentary premiering on Vimeo on Father's Day. Actor Omar Epps is an executive producer, and for him, it's more than a film project: It's a piece of his story, of his life, lived, as he puts it, with a heroic mother, and a missing father.

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What message do you want to put out there for Father's Day in this documentary?

To activate -- that would be the word to fathers worldwide, to activate within their fatherhood, by being present. In today's society I think the traditional family structure has sort of been eviscerated, certainly within impoverished communities. And it is one thing to be someone's biological father or donor, if you will, but it's another thing to actually actively father a child and take the reins of that responsibility.

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The story follows four fathers of different racial backgrounds, different  family situations, but all of them are struggling to make a living, all of them are struggling to keep their relationships going with their children.

And that's what really attracted me to this project because a lot of times, we see people who are polished and/or successful sort of being the heroes, the light is shined upon them, and I think there are a lot more people who can relate to these guys' stories who are out there struggling to make ends meet and who still love their kids, and who are still trying to figure that out. I felt like this is the perfect project to shine a light there, you know, where it's most needed.

There are so many forces that are pushing against these four men. Can you talk about some of them?

Well, obviously there's the financial part of things -- just the economic climate that certain people are in within the country. I think that underneath it, everyone's carrying their own parental history, you know, what they come from and what they were raised around, the education can come into play down the line. And then, what is the relationship with the woman, the mothers of these children and how that comes into play. I think those are kind of the four pillars of -- I call them heroes, of what these guys are going through.

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One thing you and fellow filmmakers have pointed out is that in this society, a man's financial role in a child's life is more important than his emotional one, according to the system.

Yes, and I think that sucks. I understand just in terms of history, you know, 40, 50 years ago how those things needed to be balanced out, but I think that we're at a time now where a father's worth is certainly not in his wallet, it's in his heart. And we're really trying to emphasize that to inspire kids who will be fathers one day and also to inspire guys who may already be fathers, and who may be in a bad situation, to inspire them to turn the page and progress and grow. With our guys in the film, they want to be there for their kids and all four of them are fighting in their own ways to actively help parent their children and that's why I see them as heroes.

You talk about them wanting to be part of their children's lives and also about the others who left, the fathers who just depart without wanting to be part of their children's lives. How do you overcome something like that, where the fathers -- to use the title of the film "Daddy Don't Go" -- when the daddy does go?

And that's what's plaguing I think our society, that there's so many men out there who just walk away from their kids. And it's sad, and … there are lasting effects on the kids. When you plague a child with that rift, that void, they carry that for the rest of their lives and it's horrible and it's very hard to overcome.

I know for me, I was fortunate and blessed to have just a great mom who was strong enough to carry that weight. And for me to progress, and become a father myself, I just can't imagine, there's, like, no force in this world that could keep me away from my kids.

There are a lot of men better off than the guys shown and they aren't being responsible for parenting their children so hopefully this documentary can crack the whip over guys like that, have them step up to the plate.

President Obama has been outspoken about the problems of kids growing up without a present father. He grew up without a present father. He said he wanted to have a father who was not only there but involved in his life. Has this been an influence on people, the fact that the man who's the leader of the free world knows what it's like?

Yeah. I think in certain communities, that's a very visceral thing. And it's a sign of our times that the president of the United States grew up without a father and happens to be certainly half-black. But this is a very real thing. I think it's a pandemic within the urban community, and it's something that we really have to take hold of because, what's to come a generation or two generations from now?

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And when you look at the study of just, many different studies, where most kids that grow up in two-parent homes are better off in life, as people. They have a whole different foundation, as you know, emotionally, mentally, I think even spiritually.

I think women are heroes just in general in this world.  [There are] so many amazing women but I think as a man, we've got to reclaim our fatherhood and our place within the family structure and be proud of that, and hopefully this documentary is a part of this process.

What else do you think needs to change in society to make that possible?

Well, we need to hold ourselves accountable as men first. There are many valid excuses but at the end of the day, you see people fighting through challenges that seem insurmountable. And I think that these four young men are part of that picture. These guys would be an inspiration to show that you don't need a degree to be a good parent, to be a good father. You just have to connect to that love within yourself.

Since President Obama was a boy, the number of kids growing up without their fathers has almost tripled; the number of children living in poverty has almost tripled. Does marriage matter? Does it make any difference?

That's a good question. A good marriage matters, certainly. I don't think that it's about the traditional marriage in that sense. It's about a solid family structure, whatever that may be, and everyone sort of pitching in and playing their roles. People coming from a solid family structure, meaning whether it's a woman who's with a man who may not be the father of a child she has, or whether it's two women raising a child, two men raising a child -- at the end of the day, is there a solid foundation? Is there love there? Is there understanding there? Are there two people fighting to parent their children? That's really what it comes down to.

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Some years ago there was a Will Smith film called "The Pursuit of Happyness," and I was thinking about that as I was watching your documentary; it seemed like a fairy tale by comparison.

That can happen in life. When we premiered at the New York doc film festival, someone stood up at the end. We had our guys there, and there was a nice Q and A with the crowd, and Nelson, the Latino guy -- he'd been looking for a job, and some woman said, "So did you find a job?" And he said, "No, I'm still looking." And she said, "Call me, I have something for you." That's amazing to me.

Because he's still in the fight, you never know when the opportunity's going to present itself.  But if you're not in the fight, it's not going to happen.

It took two years to make this film, to follow each of the four men with their own stories.

It took two years because there was a lot going on, trying to weave this into it, try to not have it feel like a downer at the end of the film. We wanted it to feel like a story of hope and redemption. The guys, they're living their real lives. They aren't like scripted characters. So they were faced with the adversities – one of them getting locked up so we had to wait for this and shoot around that. But again, they're all still in the battle.

About 50 years ago, an LBJ administration official named Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote what became known as the Moynihan Report -- have you heard of it?

I have not heard of this.

Moynihan said he wanted the White House to look to remedies beyond civil rights legislation. But the report was hugely controversial -- it infuriated liberals and African American leaders for focusing less on biased institutions like the prison system and schools and the workplace, and more on a fragmented black family, which the report said was created in part not only by slavery but by Jim Crow laws. So Moynihan didn't lay blame at the feet of ongoing institutions. But he did point out that problems for poor single-parent black families put the kids in those families at a disadvantage.

People believe what they want to believe, but beyond the ideologies of right and left, there are just factual things when it comes to race in this country, when it comes to the justice system, when it comes to the economic system in this country, that if you come from a particular background, the system, as it were, is not set up to make life easy for you.

There are a lot more people who are not of color who are having those similar experiences. Look, Eminem is one the biggest rappers in the world -- he didn't grow up with his father. Steve Jobs is, you know, an icon, he didn't grow up with his father. It's more of a universal story now than just it being in the black community, but certainly at the crux of it in the black community. When you don't come from a strong family structure, it doesn't bode well for the product of that.

I think there are a lot more young white people who are impoverished as well who are experiencing that in their way, in their world, but it's going to bring you back to the same emotion.  You're going to be angry, you're going to feel frustrated, and there's a sense of hopelessness to that.

Did working on this documentary change your thinking about this problem?

If anything, it just sort of ignited a different type of fire in me. Because it's one thing to have a kid who's, like, an infant or a toddler. But my oldest is about to go to college in another year so I'm thinking about that part of my fatherhood on a completely different level.

Like to have your child under the protection of your own home and that sort of thing is one thing, but when they're old enough that they're going to make their own life and go out there in the world, for me to think about my child traveling to certain places or going to certain neighborhoods or the school shooting that just happened at UCLA out here -- these are things that you think differently about when your child is closer to being in that arena.

And we're all connected, so we'll all have a certain sense of responsibility toward one another. But it all starts in the home.

Did your father ever come back into your life?

No. No. My father left when I was 2. I tracked him down in my early 20s and then tracked him down late 30s. I've been tracking him down to try to just build from here on out. But the best way to describe that is you know it's a monologue, it's not a dialogue. You can't really -- if only one person is putting in, then what really exists between those two people?

I've tried to give him a chance for us to get to know one another because certainly there's something about his story prior to me being born that fed into why he wasn't there.

My fatherhood is one of my biggest accomplishments. And it's one of my biggest accomplishments because I didn't have a hands-on blueprint of how to [do it]. There's no manual for parenthood, but certainly my son will have a completely different blueprint when it's time for him to become a father, based on the fact that his father was in his life, is in his life. When you don't have that, you're sort of flying by the seat of your pants.

And I say this humbly, but I'm just saying that for those young men who may look up to me because I come from where they come from and I've made a certain amount of success for myself – you know, it's not about the material and it's not about the glamour and the glitz. It's what you're doing every day when the cameras are off. Having your kids grow up to be good people, productive citizens -- that's like the greatest joy. And it's forever.

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