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In Netflix's 'Fatherhood,' Kevin Hart gives a white dad's memoir new layers of meaning

By casting Black actors in the adaptation, the movie is able to address Black maternal mortality, stereotypes about Black fatherhood and Black joy.
Image: Kevin Hart, Melody Hurd
Melody Hurd as Maddy and Kevin Hart as Matt in "Fatherhood."Philippe Bosse / Netflix

Netflix's new dramatic comedy "Fatherhood," based on Matt Logelin's memoir, follows Matt, played by comedian Kevin Hart, a soon-to-be father who isn't quite taking the impending birth of his daughter seriously enough.

Though an emergency C-section upends his plans for a night out with the guys, both Matt and his wife, Liz (Deborah Ayorinde, of "Them"), who had health concerns during the pregnancy, are delighted with their newborn baby, Maddy.

However, shortly after giving birth, Liz dies suddenly of a pulmonary embolism, leaving a reeling Matt to try and deal with his grief and a brand-new baby on his own.

While, like the majority of Hart's films, "Fatherhood" leans into a comedic tone even though the memoir is more sentimental, the casting decisions widen the story's perspective about the experiences of birth, maternal mortality and single parenting.

For instance, though the real-life Logelins are white, casting Hart and Ayorinde in the roles of Matt and Liz highlights the horrific rate of Black maternal mortality in the United States. Tennis star Serena Williams, to take one recent high-profile case, has been very open about her experience giving birth via C-section, having a pulmonary embolism — a condition with which she already had a medical history — and yet still having difficulty convincing doctors there was something seriously wrong with her.

A movie like "Fatherhood" can perhaps at least contribute to this growing awareness around Black maternal mortality and the calls for change.

Despite technological and medical advances, it is still more dangerous for a Black woman — no matter her age, health or socioeconomic background — to give birth in the United States than many other places in the world, and the rate of maternal mortality in the U.S. has actually gone up in the last 20 years.

While the surviving loved ones of Black women who died in childbirth have begun routinely speaking out about and leading protests against the lack of care the women experienced while giving birth, little appears to have changed. A movie like "Fatherhood" can perhaps at least contribute to this growing awareness and these calls for change.

Further, while our perceptions of parenting and child-rearing have changed drastically in the new millennium, giving us all kinds of tools, books and theories about the best ways to be an involved parent of any gender, we've learned during the pandemic — with articles about overworked mothers and women who've had to give up their careers to raise and teach their children at home — our society still thrusts the bulk of parenting onto women.

Meanwhile, in popular culture, Black fathers are often universally painted as "deadbeat dads" even though, statistically, they are some of the most involved fathers in our society.

"Fatherhood" dramatizes this latter aspect of Black fatherhood as well when, following Liz's funeral, Liz's mother, Marion (Alfre Woodard), tries to insist that she and her husband take Maddy back to Minnesota to parent so Matt can remain and work in Boston. Though it's meant to be well-meaning, they are portrayed as part of a generation that doesn't see men as capable of well-rounded parenting and, in turn, would simply let Matt off the hook for his responsibility to be emotionally, financially and physically present in his daughter's life. Despite his personal feelings of inadequacy as a father, Matt nonetheless decides to raise Maddy alone and in Boston.

We've learned during the pandemic — with articles about overworked mothers and women who've had to give up their careers to raise and teach their children at home — our society still thrusts the bulk of parenting onto women.

Then, as he juggles raising Maddy while climbing the corporate ladder, Matt deals with feelings of ostracism and isolation, insensitive comments about "where the baby's mother is" and being reprimanded at work for putting his child over his career. Women who work outside of the home have, of course, been dealing with discrimination on the basis of their motherhood alongside garden-variety sexism for decades in the workplace, if not centuries. But seeing the same archaic ideals thrust onto a man will hopefully highlight how preposterous these parenting stereotypes are in a society that values parents at all, as well as showcase the imbalances with which all involved parents — and especially single parents — have to deal in the workplace.

There is, of course, comedy and a plot amid all the implied messaging: Alongside some cringeworthy jokes from Matt's immature-but-caring friends Jordan (Lil Rel Howery) and Oscar (Anthony Carrigan), an exhausted Matt spends the first 40 minutes of the film coping with grief, a colicky infant and the constant intrusions of his smothering mother-in-law.

Then, in the second half of the film, "Fatherhood" truly comes alive when Maddy (Melody Hurd, of "Them") is elementary-school age. She and Matt have their routine and unique bond — but, as many parents understand, once you think you've mastered child-rearing, something happens. In this case, Matt (unsurprisingly) gets a new love interest and Maddy suddenly becomes unhappy at school and misses her grandparents.

The plot points in "Fatherhood" are pretty predictable from this point, but the apparent bond between Hart and Hurd make them feel authentic. Hurd in particular soars as the charismatic and precocious Maddy, whose father has given her the ability to fully express herself and her opinions in a safe space. The film mostly resists the bumbling father characterization of fathers in general and Black fathers in particular that we often see otherwise: It's always clear that Matt is trying his best and thinking of Maddy at nearly every turn, even when he stumbles.

While some portions of "Fatherhood" are cheesier than others, it is a mostly solid film about the reality of connection between a father and his child — one that exists for many, if not most, fathers — especially today. Perhaps as a society, we haven't always universally demanded or expected that men will parent their children in the same nurturing way we assume women will and are able to do. As a result, a good number of men have acted accordingly, becoming part-time fathers whether they are in the home or not.

As "Fatherhood" suggests, men are capable of and often want more, and it's about time we not only expect better but provide resources to any parent — man, woman, nonbinary person and otherwise — who might be feeling in need of more than they have.