One of the great gifts given to me by my dad, Robert Vernon Delaney aka The Fats, was a love of all kinds of movies. When I was between the ages of 4 and 14, The Fats probably took my brother Ed & I to the movies every other Saturday afternoon, or every Saturday if it wasn’t baseball season. He often took us to movies that my classmates’ folks would never take them too, either because the subject matter was too risque or violent, or else they just assumed kids would be bored by something without fart jokes or laser fights. He used movies to show us how life works, or fails to work; conversations during the ride home and at the dinner table laid the foundation for my need to lose myself in a movie and find my way back out of it.
Through Fats’ and my love of movies, I have encountered three cinematic dads who have resonated with me above all others. First and foremost of those is Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, in Robert Mulligan‘s TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, adapted from Harper Lee‘s novel by Horton Foote. This may seem an easy choice for one of the great movie dads, but I’ve had this awestruck feeling for the widower Atticus since long before he topped AFI’s list of Heroes & Villains. The most obvious reason that Atticus is an exemplary father is they way he treats his 10 year old son Jem and his 6 year old daughter Scout. He never speaks to them as children who would not understand the ways of adults; he speaks to them as young people who can understand anything he cares to explain to them, and Atticus is a master of explanation. In one of the signature scenes of the film, Atticus makes a gift of a rifle to young Jem, and repeats to him the same instruction that his own father had given him: that it was acceptable to kill blue jays but never a mockingbird. He offers to Jem the sense that “Mockingbirds don’t do anything but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat people’s gardens, don’t nest in the corncrib, they don’t do one thing but just sing their hearts out for us.” Atticus uses a simple instruction to expand his childrens’ appreciation of simple pleasures, but does so in way that leaves them time to figure that out for themselves.
Atticus Finch is more than a great dad within his own home. He is a pillar of his community, in a sense that puts him a position to be that master of explanation to his entire town, a shepherd to a sometimes resistant flock. For a story set in the dawning days of the 20th century, Atticus leads by example, in a manner that is sadly still ahead of his time now. He is a country lawyer who defends a black man against a charge of raping a white woman. I could tell you more about that, but if you have already seen the film you know how that turns out; if you have not seen it I would never deprive you of the lessons in basic human decency that I learned from Atticus Finch one humid summer night that the Fats allowed me to sit up way past my bedtime to watch TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD with him.
A movie dad whom I found on my own, in a place that I wasn’t even looking for him, was a man named Jason “Furious” Styles. Furious, played by Laurence Fishburn, lives, works and raises his son in South Central Los Angeles in BOYZ N THE HOOD. This film was the feature debut of writer & director John Singleton, who took from his own family the inspiration to make Furious determined to see his own son Trey go to college. My affection for Furious emerged early in the film, when he is driving Trey through their neighborhood, and “Ooh Child” by The Five Stairsteps comes on the radio. In this brief moment Furious sings and shares with his son a song that he had loved since Trey was a toddler. Trey does what most kids would do: he reacts as if his old man is sentimental, embarrassing, and patently uncool. This scene shows us Furious educating Trey in the difference between temporary cool, the things that Trey thinks are stylish and important this week, versus time-tested cool that will always be impressive long after fads fade.
As with Atticus Finch, we also see Furious Styles emerge as a pillar of his community, although in a less official capacity. In one of the most powerful scenes in the film Furious, who works as a real estate agent, stands at a crossroad and shows Trey and his friends what comprises their neighborhood. He observes mostly gun stores, convenience stores, and liquor stores, and ground zero for a misguided war on drugs. At the conclusion of Furious’ thoughts, one of Trey’s friends remarks how Trey’s dad “can preach.” Furious is not an important man in his community because of an office he holds or a job he does; he is important because he is a man who raises his son, when all around him he sees other men not taking that responsibility. Furious even manages to instill his values into Trey when it seems he has failed. Both an early and a late incident in the film concern guns; though I have not actually seen BOYS N THE HOOD in several years, I can still hear Furious’s advice to Trey as if I’d just seen the film yesterday. If you believe Trey Styles’ mother and Furious’ ex wife, he is not a perfect man, but his dedication to his son and his resistance in the face of the decline of his neighborhood make him a powerful force to be reckoned with. This is also my personal favorite performance by Laurence Fishburn, who is one of that rare breed of actors who elevate every project they take on, making good films special and the excellent films unforgettable.
The final movie dad who has left an indelible impression on me is Seibei Iguchi, played by Hiroyuki Sanada in THE TWILIGHT SAMURAI. Seibei is fascinating in that he is downright flawless in his job, but he has very little opportunity to show that, given that the film takes in the late 19th century place toward the end of the Samurai era. Seibei is nicknamed Twilight Samurai by his coworkers, his Samurai clan; what they do not realize as well as Seibei does is that their centuries-old way of life is drawing to a close. The story opens with Seibei attending the funeral of his wife, and then returning home to care for his two young daughters and his increasingly senile mother. He does not have the aloof pride of most movie Samurai; he regards his job as little more than a way to make ends meet, and really only comes alive for his family at the end of each working day.
Seibei is not a pillar of his community. No one around him looks up to him. At the end of the day, Seibei is that unsung father who does the best he can, and more, with little acknowledgment from anyone but those closest to him. This is at the core of being a great dad, a great parent, a great mentor; you exemplify excellence when no one else is watching. Even when Seibei is put to the test, both as a family man and as a Samurai, these tests are met with no witnesses. I saw TWILIGHT SAMURAI one week after my father passed away. I knew the my dad provided me a more comfortable life than most of my peers because he worked hard, and he worked smart; I never properly thanked him or acknowledged that I understood this. It is perhaps due to this realization that the unassuming grace of Seibei Iguchi resonated so deeply. Nonetheless, this character has stayed with me, and shown me the true measure of a man.
Hollywood has given us many good dads, and more than a few good moms as well, but the great ones are few and far between. International cinema may be a different story, but I am still learning my way around that arena. If you have a favorite Movie Dad or Movie Mom, please feel free to comment below; I love it when fellow movie aficionados hip me to something new. I’d also love to hear your thoughts on Atticus, Furious, and Seibei if you have met any of them. Happy Father’s Day.