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A Portrait of Four Fathers

A look at some iconic fathers played by James Earl Jones


I had a mini epiphany the other day when I stumbled across a video of James Earl Jones on stage delivering dialogue in his unmistakable voice. 


It occurred to me that he has played some iconic roles as a patriarch during his career, which spanning sixty-seven years. Troy Maxson (Fences), Darth Vader (Star Wars), King Jaffe Joffer (Coming to America) and Mufasa (The Lion King).


Not only was each character unique, but they also presented different types of fathers. And so I wrote this song:

I wanted to expand upon the portraits I painted and that's what I briefly hope to do here.

 

The Distant Father


But you was always so distant Always seemed so moody Always cross with me Killing me softly like the Fugees

The character played by James Earl Jones, and more recently Denzel Washington, is a man named Troy Maxson. He is central to the play and also to his family, taking pride in his role as a breadwinner for his family. He works hard to bring an income home for his wife and children, lifting rubbish into trucks for the sanitation department. Troy's lowly occupation puts food on the table and clothes on the backs of his family.


While he provides for the material needs of his family, he is not as successful at providing love and affection to his wife and children. The play centres around his desire to build a fence and this serves as a metaphor for the emotional barriers his indifference erects between him and others.


Nobody could deny that Troy fulfilled his role as a provider of his household, but being a father is more than just ensuring the regular provision of sustenance. Troy struggled to connect productively with his son, who at one point asks, 'How come you ain't you ever liked me?' The playwright August Wilson penned a blistering response delivered powerfully by both Jones and Washington, capturing the thinly veiled resentment harboured by Troy. Troy does have affection for his son, although this is choked out by the overwhelming sense that his progeny is an annoyance.


Once a rising star in baseball, Troy's frustration with his unfulfilled aspirations seem to cloud his relationship with his son. The lasting impression Troy leaves his son with is that he is disliked by his father. It doesn't take a great deal to become Troy. One or two major disappointments in life, the weight of responsibility along with the everyday challenges of life, love and work can combine to produce a toxic cocktail.


A cocktail that will leave an otherwise responsible father inebriated and incapacitated; unable to perform his full fatherly duties, hungover by past disappointments, too intoxicated to observe the effects he has on his family.

 

The Absent Father


I can never follow your pattern You left to pursue your passions How could you leave your kid in this world alone all abandoned? I don’t know you from Adam

Of all the portraits, this is the most tragic: Darth Vader. According to Wiki, George Lucas, the creator of Star Wars and the character, said the name 'was based upon the German/Dutch-language homophone vater or vader, meaning 'father', making the name representative of a "Dark Father".


Spoiler alert: Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker's father.


The Dark Father is aptly named because he is absent from his son's life. He is a silhouette, a shadow cast over the life of Luke. Darth Vader's personal pursuit of power outweighs his sense of responsibility to his son. Darth Vader goes over to the dark side, illustrated visually by Darth Vader's all-black outfit. His son is diametrically opposed to the idea of being like his father.


Perhaps there are many complex reasons why a father might opt to absent themselves from their children's lives. For some it is a pursuit of power, for others money, for others the fear of losing freedom. I imagine, however, these reasons are too difficult for a child to understand. And so, understandably, a child with an absent father will fill the dark void left in their lives with their own explanations, their own justifications, their own aspirations. But many, if not all, of these internal dispositions will function in a way that permanently excludes an absent father.


It's a survival tactic.


In extremely cold weather, the body will work to preserve vital organs. If a father removes themselves from their child's lives, they may find they are unable to return. One of the most powerful scenes from The Fresh Prince of Bel Air is when Will's estranged father, Lou,  returns after long absence. He's back on the scene and together they begin to rebuild their relationship, only for Lou to walk out again. In the scene, Will deals with the pain of his absence again and the encounter reinforces his resolve to continue to exist without his Dad. 


Darth Vader is able to make some recompense in the life of his son before his death, but as is often the case with an absent father: it's too little, too late.

 

The Controlling Father


If the absent father is on one side of the spectrum, the controlling father is the polar opposite. Where an absent father shows too little interest in their child's life, the controlling father shows too much, as illustrated by King Jaffe Joffer. He is heavily invested in the life of his son, Prince Akeem. It is apparent the love and affection he has for his son, but this manifests itself in a suffocating form of control.


And you love me with intensity Although you know eventually You’re gonna have to set me free To stand up on my own two feet

King Joffer ensures his son is well-looked after, although this seems like a means to serve his ends. King Joffer arranges a bride to be married to his son, maintaining control in even the most minute details of Akeem's life. For Joffer, tradition is everything and his son must fit into the cultural and societal expectations of those traditions. The King means well, but he seems to live vicariously through his son. He keeps his adult son on a short leash and reserves the role of final decision maker in Akeem's life, a role that should have long been relinquished to his son.


He has in fact raised a noble man as his son, willing to honour and submit to his father's dictates. King Joffer has raised an exceptional child. Controlling parents often do. Behind so many accomplished athletes, musicians, actors and other notable people can often be found demanding dads. Often men who themselves have accomplished some level of success and want their children to do the same, casting their children in the shadow of their former selves. Fathers with good intentions using their children to achieve their own agendas. A patriarch should not be a puppeteer. Dads shouldn't dominate their children lives.


Spoiler alert: King Jaffe Joffer relents and respects his son's wishes.


He lets up on his son. He doesn't lower his expectations or do away with tradition, but he treats his son as he is really is: independent. The goal of parenting is help your children to become independent of you. He allows his child to make his own decisions, whether to fall or fly. The veracity of his parenting cannot be truly seen until it is tested and that can only happen when his child has the autonomy to make his own decisions.

 

The Consummate Father


The final portrait is a father complete in every detail. That's what consummate means. Mufasa is the consummate father. I'm not sure if there is a better on-screen father. He is present with his son, not just physically but emotionally. He provides for his son, not just sustenance but shepherding. He pushes him to be the best version of himself, while recognising his unique personhood and individuality.


In a final act of altruism, he gives up his life to ensure the safety of his son.


Never a time that you’re not close Since the age of zero If you could see how we’ve grown Your legacy is in me so I’ma let your seeds grow

It seems strange taking an object lesson from a lion, an animated one at that. Mufasa's death is possibly owed to Walt Disney's own personal childhood trauma, nonetheless, it only serves to crystallise his deft ability at parenthood. Despite his brief presence in the life of Simba, Mufasa has a profound impact on his son. He uses the mundane opportunities of everyday life (see here and here) to educate and embrace his son, to play with and prepare his son, to father his child.


Even in his carefree Hakuna Matata phase, Simba still recalls the lessons his father taught him (see here). Mufasa's death reminds us all that our time with our children is limited. Therefore, we should actively seek to develop our children for lives without us, while cherishing the moments we have with them. Disney makes it look easy, I know.


It's not.


Parenting is hard. Fatherhood is tough. But it's worth it. The collective sense of pride we feel when the Lion King takes his rightful place at the end of the film (see here) is because we see the fruition of Mufasa's fatherhood. Simba standing in his father's footsteps is a helpful reminder that our children will seek to do the same. It's reminder that whatever father we have been up until this point, it's not too late to be a better one.


It's a reminder that fathers matter.

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