THE TROUBLE I SEE
A FATHER DAUGHTER DANCE GOES TO JAIL
About the Film
The Trouble I See examines family separation through the prism of the systemic racism of incarceration, violence, and poverty. Using the annual Father-Daughter Dance at the Richmond City Jail as the catalyst, the film illuminates the realities of growing up in an environment where exposure to violence and criminal activity are an everyday reality, of aspiring to the American dream when it has been rendered systemically out of reach and of being so deeply impacted by gun violence, that it is paradoxically common-place and traumatic. Above all the film is about family bonds and how those connections are the only way our characters maintain hope when the odds are dramatically stacked against them.
Tonette Jones, mother of seven is at a vigil. She is honoring the life of yet another young black man who has suffered a violent death. She takes the microphone, tilting her head in a tough girl manner which belies her soft, grandmotherly features. In her 54 years, Tonette has identified several bodies at local morgues and attended countless funerals and vigils, all for men who have senselessly died as a result of gun violence. Tonette herself was a drug dealer for many years (now she manages a cleaning crew at her local Marriott). Relatives of the dead man take to the microphone while supporters hold candles. One woman is filled with rage: “We need to take our streets back. We need to take our sons back. No more vigils.” she spits out. The crowd agrees audibly.
The living quarters or “tier” of the Richmond City Jail is home to Tonette’s son, Rashawn along with Andre and Joey. Each man peels off his utilitarian prison overalls and puts on trousers, a dress shirt and a tie as they prepare to participate in the second ever Father/ Daughter Dance at this facility. Faded, neck and hand tattoos peek out from their neatly pressed suits. Carol Dabney, a kind hearted jail staffer, moves quickly through the tier. Dabney discusses the dance in a VO interview: “When the daughters see their fathers it does not matter my daddy is a criminal, my daddy has been locked up, it is just pure, authentic, love.” A row of nervous girls sit on the plastic bench of the City Jail waiting area.
Rashawn, Joey and Andre are able to reconnect with their daughters in a profound way. They dance, laugh, write in journals to their future selves and share a meal of traditional southern food.There are moments of genuine connection and everyone (including the viewer) forgets we are watching the laughter, the in-jokes, the gentle face touching inside the walls of a jail. Inevitably the event draws to a close with tearful goodbyes and long hugs. The group of inmates wait for the jail guard to dictate their next move. Andre speaks with conviction and vows never to return to prison. Andre: “Can you imagine how them children feel walking out here? It’s my fault I’m here. They don’t deserve this...“ Some men in the room are wiping away tears. After a moment they are led down the hall towards their tier. A loud thud is heard as the heavy jail door closes behind them, a depressing expression of finality. Just 2 months after the Father Daughter Dance, Andre is released. Three of Andre’s children including Nikkita ( who participated in the dance) race up to him and shower him in hugs and kisses. During a sit down interview, Andre recounts this moment. He discusses the joy of being reunited with his family after months of separation and of being liberated from the dehumanizing cycle of incarceration. Andre sits in his almost silent, housing project apartment. There are several shelves with toys and games, but there is not a child in sight. Andre: “I get home and we celebrate, you know daddy is here. The next day social services come to the house with the police and they say they are here to remove the children. Me being in and out of prison from selling drugs and in the ghetto where I live at. I know it has to be that.” Andre starts crying. “I love my children and I know my kids love me... For these people to say I did something to my child, these people crazy.” There is silence again in the tidy and empty apartment.
One and a half years after the Father-Daughter Dance Joey Atkins stands outside his modest single story home. He talks with disarming honesty. When asked how it feels to repeatedly return to jail and be separated from his family, Joey responds: “It don’t make no sense, it feels like the dumbest thing in the world.” Joey’s loyal and devoted wife, Amy is in the cosy kitchen cooking dinner. Amy: “I was glad when he got locked up this last time, at least I knew where he was.” Amy goes on to explain the stress of daily life with an addict and how she could never keep anything of value in the house. Amy:” I honestly don’t know why I stay, but I love him. I just do.”
It is November 2016 and Rashawn (nickname: Skee) has been out of jail twice since the dance of 2013. During this stint he has been out for several months and stands in the galley kitchen of his sister’s apartment. The apartment is old with scuffed doors and floors, but nice and carefully chosen decor. A stream of young men including his nephew, Momar traipse through the kitchen. Rashawn’s eyes are bleary and red from smoking weed. He laughs at his sister Philly’s crazy story about a recent night out. Philly, a 36 year old former drug dealer, filled with a warmth and charisma that bely the bullet scars peppering her tattooed shoulders describes their upbringing in a sit down interview: “The drug game runs deep in our bloodline. Skee wasn’t even 13 when he jumped off the porch to start selling.” Philly talks in glowing terms about her son, Momar and the similarities between him and his Uncle Skee. Rashawn’s daughter, Shaniya sits next to him in the living room. He looks on as she texts. She is now 13 now and is starting to look womanly. Philly discusses their vocation: “So you win and you lose in the cocaine game... We seen our Uncles die, our best friends die...so much death. It gets you depressed, it gets you aggravated..” Rashawn smiles half heartedly as he pulls off in an old old white Lexus.
It is now 2018 and Joey’s daughter, Alexis is 15, her long manicured fingernails tap as she clutches her pencil doing geography homework, her mother Amy steps in to offer assistance. Joey’s son, Jojo (now 10 years old) takes out the trash. There is a buoyant tone to the family and home. As Amy clips coupons she explains that she kicked Joey out a few months ago and they will be divorcing. She is happy and feels that she can finally live, free and unburdened of the chaos that comes from life with an addict. In a moment of disarming maturity Alexis reveals that Joey texts her occasionally, and asks her to keep in touch: “But it is not up to me, I am the child.”
The filmmakers recruit Rashawn’s nephew (Philly’s son), Momar as a production associate. He is sharp, technically minded and in need of work to support his own baby daughter and girlfriend. In an attempt to round out Andre’s heartbreaking story we conduct an expert interview in a well known Richmond park with Kerry O’Brien an advocate for parental and children’s rights and an outspoken opponent of Child Protective Services. Momar holds a reflector as Kerry talks about the institutionalized problems with CPS and the Adverse Child Experiences (ACE) scale. After the filmmaker interview takes a pause, Momar chimes in, “I have a question.” He goes on to ask Kerry why CPS favors the mother (he is currently involved in a custody battle), and builds to an extremely emotional moment where he comes to the revelation that he has experienced many of the markers on the ACE scale including rape. It is heartbreaking, tying together all the key themes of the film; family separation, self referential cinema, the cycle of poverty, crime and abuse, discrimination and fragility of the black male body and the unbridled love of a complex and emotionally broken father.