Black dads have been right in the thick of the black TV and film we've all enjoyed this year. In Starz’s smash series Power, Ghost (Omari Hardwick) struggles to balance his duties as a drug kingpin and a father. The beef between T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) and Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) in Black Panther ultimately stemmed from the decisions that their respective fathers made decades before the adversaries even met. Mahershala Ali played a horrible, abusive baby daddy to young rapper Roxanne Shante in Netflix’s hip-hop biopic, Roxanne Roxanne. Earn (Donald Glover) wants the best for the daughter he shares with Van (Zazie Beetz) in the FX series Atlanta, but securing that better life doesn’t look promising, bless his heart. The range among this year’s onscreen black dads is lit, but only a select few of them have shown up for their black daughters in ways that are empowering and affirming.
The trope about dad/daughter relationships, across all races, typically goes like this: even loving fathers are aloof, or disinterested in their daughters’ interests, and they are only driven to intervene when she’s in danger or in a romantic situation. Take black-ish’s Dre (Anthony Anderson) as an example. He and eldest daughter Zoe (Yara Shahidi) are extremely close, but he is put off by any mention of her dating. In one scene, when he finds out that Zoe’s had sex since starting college, he literally falls into the sunken place. It’s a hilarious metaphor for an experience that fathers everywhere are supposed to relate to. Even I can find endearment in parents dreading their daughter’s foray into the bleak realm of heterosexual dating, because I know from personal experience that it’s a dark and confusing place.
But at best, this trope diminished the humanity of women to a handful of sexist stereotypes that the men in their lives (especially paternal figures) have themselves established. At worst, it does more harm than good by cutting off necessary conversations with women about consent, character building, pleasure, sexism, ambition, and the kinds of support they should expect from the people who claim to love them. These are conversations that black women desperately need, given the realities: that we are oversexualised from a young age, more likely to experience intimate partner violence, harder hit by the pay gap, and generally less affirmed than other groups. And the bottom line is that singularly focused overprotection and disengagement damn sure aren’t the basis for healthy relationships between a dad and his daughter.
Thankfully, some of our black dads have completely curved this kind of parenting, and are showing up for the black girls in their lives with depth and loving intentionality. Take the most obvious and possibly the most popular, our beloved Randall Pearson (Sterling K Brown) from This Is Us. The love that he has for his wife Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) already speaks volumes about his understanding of black womanhood, and has made him a fan favourite. However, the love he extends to his three daughters can’t be slept on. He does their hair, and he encourages them to pursue the activities they want to do rather than the ones he wants for them.
The first time I ever thought that Randall was exactly the kind of corny dad for me was when one of his daughters casually announced that her grandfather, Randall’s biological father, was bisexual. It was a moment where Randall had to accept that sometimes his daughters could know more than him, or at least more than he expected them to. He was surprised, but not disappointed, that he didn’t actually need to “teach” his daughters about queerness as he had anticipated. The relationship that he’s built with his adopted daughter Deja (Lyric Ross), meanwhile, is truly a blueprint for how people should love and respect black girls. He leaves room for her to have emotions that aren’t pretty or convenient, and offers unconditional support as she deals with her own unsavoury past. He does all of this while working through his own anxiety, and I respect him so much for it.
What Black women need from dads is the same thing we need from everyone else: support, love, and the freedom to be ourselves.
The black dad most suited for my own black girlhood would have to be The Hate U Give’s Maverick Carter, played by Russell Hornsby. A former gang member who has rebuilt his life after a prison stint, Mav has raised his only daughter Starr (Amandla Stenberg), who has just witnessed her friend’s murder at the hands of a white police officer, to be just as tough as he is. Starr is hyper aware of her position in America’s gendered and racialised hierarchy, thanks to his intense study of the Black Panther principles. In the cliched scene where Starr brings her boyfriend home to meet him, he does freak out… but only because Starr’s boyfriend is white (really white, thanks to KJ Apa). He isn’t sent into a tizzy because of any perceived threat to his daughter’s piety. And by the end of the scene, he accepts their relationship. Mav is proof that men can protect and provide for their families without subscribing to overbearing and over-simplistic versions of masculinity. Shoutout to a real one.
Other black fathers, like Violet’s (Sanaa Lathan) dad in the Netflix film Nappily Ever After, are less serious but just as meaningful. Richard (Earnest Lee Hudson) is one of the first people to suggest to his daughter that it’s lifelong baggage, and not just a singular breakup, that possibly prompted her to drastically change her appearance.
And the trend isn’t over as the year winds down. If Beale Street Could Talk, a cinematic take on James Baldwin’s novel by filmmaker Barry Jenkins, arrives next week, and Colman Domingo is going to turn you into your favourite cry meme as Joseph Rivers. In 1970s Harlem, his unmarried daughter announces that she’s pregnant. Rather than raging about irresponsibility, morality, or theoretical violations of her body, he laughs. Not only is he elated to be a grandfather, he makes a point to tell her that she shouldn’t carry any shame about her decision to have a child. The support he offers his daughter throughout her entire pregnancy and the film is tender enough to bring you to tears.
Black daughters don’t need to be doted on and undermined because they’re women. It’s not cute to approach our sexuality and autonomy with fear, mistrust, disgust, or condemnation. What we need from dads is the same thing we need from everyone else: support, love, and the freedom to be ourselves. If you need instructions on how, turn on your television or head to the movies.
R29 Unbothered presents Trap Glazed, a bi-weekly column where Senior Entertainment Writer Sesali Bowen looks deeper at what’s happening in Black pop culture.