In A Perfect World
BY DAPHNE MCWILLIAMS
I grew up with fairytales. I was lucky, my parents were in love and once they had children, they kept us close. They met and married in Harlem, New York, having immigrated to the United States from the West Indies (Jamaica and Trinidad.) They both wanted a large family and after their third child, they moved to Staten Island, where I was born. I am the seventh child in our family of f
our girls and four boys and life was good. We had the essentials and were happy. Also, achieving an excellent education was a serious endeavor in our house.
My optimistic parents always looked at the bright side of everything. We had our issues but we all had successful careers in a range of professions. Yet, when I decided to have a child out of wedlock, they were in shock, especially my mother who was a devout Catholic. It didn't seem to matter that I was early into my fourth decade of life, had a good career and financial security or that I hadn't lived at home in over 20 years. I thought that I was well prepared for the arrival of my son since everything looked perfect on paper but once I became a parent, I learned even more about my family and myself.
Chase’s father and I both have Caribbean roots but as time passed, it became increasingly obvious that we had little in common besides having a baby. Chase was my parents’ first grandchild and my family was head over heels in love with him. Unfortunately that didn’t help my relationship with his father and we decided to go our separate ways. In the beginning, our co-parenting went fine but that too didn’t last. Things got particularly dire after the attacks of 9/11 and Chase’s father moved further away from the city.
As a single parent, I found that the early years of my son’s life were not as difficult as when he became a pre-teen. Chase was growing rapidly, and his moods were endlessly shifting. Once he reached the hormonal stage, I felt as though my role, as a parent was starting to take a back seat.
Overall, his life was probably typical of a New York City kid, spent on schooling, sports and travel. Like my parents, we have had a modest lifestyle but I managed to maintain travel, music, art and education in our lives.
He started traveling before he was a year old, spending time with me on production sets and in the kitchen with his father, who is a chef. Like most of us, I want the best for my child. However, having been raised by two parents in an intact marriage, I felt unable to relate to Chase’s experience of being raised by a single mom.
Looking back, I don’t believe Chase had any major issues, he was just growing up but I started to feel frustrated and helpless. Perhaps I was struggling with the stigma of being a black single mother, it was a sore spot, one I wasn’t prepared to deal with. And the more I read about fatherless black males, the more my panic grew over the future that awaited him.
As Chase continued to mature and debate me on every possible subject, I began to wonder if things would be easier if his father was around.
I love photography and used to volunteer at school events. One day, at a graduation ceremony, as I was taking pictures, I heard Kevin Keenan speak. He had graduated from that same school in 2004, and had gone on to college.
He talked about being raised in the Hell’s Kitchen district in NYC by a single mother. He had never met his father and described the challenges him and his mother faced. It was the first time I heard a white person speak about such issues. Kevin was optimistic and someone Chase and his classmates could relate to. Many were from single parent homes too. After the event, I asked Kevin if he would be interested in participating in my project to interview men raised by a single mother and ask them if there was something they didn’t have the opportunity to say to their mothers in the past. The title for the film (at that time) was “Talk to Her.”
But documentaries can take you on unexpected paths once you start filming. I learned this producing documentaries for Spike Lee and Samuel Pollard, both seasoned and accomplished filmmakers. And I started talking to the men about my own son growing up without his father.
Halfway through production, people started asking why our own story wasn’t part of the film? I struggled with the answer to that question for weeks. In my family, we didn’t discuss personal matters outside of the home. I wasn’t so sure my mother (had she been alive) would have approved.
My first interview with Chase was difficult, actually we ended up with us bickering. The crew, who I have known and worked with over the years, helped to diffuse the tension and assisted me in getting my teenage son to express his feelings about his father. As the project progressed Chase started to go with the flow, we didn’t realize then what impact this would have on our lives.
I was like my father who loved to document his travels; I started to photograph everything and eventually I got a video camera and started video taping everything, Chase was used to it.
I lost many nights of sleep over the idea of exposing our personal story to the world, but Executive Producer Sam Pollard and editor James Codoyannis supported my new vision for the film and helped me get through the dilemma.
In the end, I believe I was successful in maintaining the integrity of the interviews and ultimately making a film that will shed light on the dynamics of being raised by a single mother. But the most rewarding part was meeting and learning from all of the men who so generously participated in the making of “In a Perfect World.”
Growing up with a camera in my face was an experience. No matter what I was doing, the camera was out and ready to roll. All of my memories have a common theme: the camera. It was there at every school performance, milestones were recorded and tasks documented. I remember it being there even when I was running around as a little kid, the camera was out… just because.
One of the most difficult parts was that I was so often being told to wait. I would always have to pause before I did anything because my mom needed to setup her camera to record. I sometimes would grow very impatient but in retrospect I was also a little happy. I feel that to have all the moments of my life, the significant and also the not so significant, on camera makes me a pretty lucky guy. It allows me to look back on my life as a child and all I have done.
In school, most of my friends don't have a relationship with their father either but it's not a big deal to us. Even though we do have a lot of conversations about it and it gets pretty serious. We also have a lot of different scenarios and fantasies and we crack jokes about fathers. It's always good fun but there isn't a day that we don't actually make those dad jokes. Not all of my friends that don't have dads are black which makes it very diverse and also breaks the stereotype. But the violence pertaining to black lives is real and it is a big deal, when I spend time with my black friends, they are all aware of the risks induced by the color of our skin especially with the police.
Usually when I am with my white friends, I have to remind them at times that it is actually dangerous for me to do certain things just because I am black. I have to explain but they never actually understand.
Director/Producer"In a Perfect World..."
a documentary film about men raised by single mothers.