Michael Ealy’s new film, “Unconditional,” paints a vivid portrait of the
hole millions of men leave in the lives of their children — a hole that often results in their offspring’s delinquent behavior, violent aggression, hopelessness and imprisonment. Inspired by true events, the intricate storyline sheds light on the epidemic of absentee fathers as a contributing factor in the “cradle- to-prison pipeline.”
Seeking to inspire public service, “Unconditional” tells the story of a fatherless boy who breaks the cycle by offering to others what his father withheld from him: sacrifice and love.
Flashbacks from “Papa” Joe Bradford’s (Ealy) childhood tell the story of an idealistic boy with dreams of becoming a black samurai. He has an insatiable appetite for heroism and desperately wants to shield those he loves from harm. The natural bond that he develops with Samantha Crawford (Lynn Collins) puts this to the test, as the two encounter resistance to their interracial friendship. Quick to come to her rescue by throwing blows at a racist bully, young Joe proves himself to be a fearless protector at an early age.
It’s in this yearning to defend his friends that we see Joe repeatedly morph from a sweet-natured person into a violent aggressor. From the playground to the prison yard, he often shows uncontrollable rage when responding to conflict.
A near-death experience brought about by a snake bite gives us a clue as to where this anger originates from. As he lies in a hospital bed questioning his grandmother about his father’s whereabouts, Joe reveals his greatest fear — that his daddy doesn’t love him. Everything Joe says and does from that point on can be linked back to those experiences of rejection and immense pain.
Joe’s story is not an uncommon one, as the movie points out. According to a U.S. Census Bureau report, 22 million children (in the United States alone) are growing up in homes where they only have one custodial parent, and mothers are that parent the majority of times (82.2 percent). Among black children, about half (49.2) live with only one parent. When we consider the increased likelihood of poverty, drug and alcohol abuse, teen pregnancy, and high school dropouts in households without fathers, the insurmountable odds stacked against these children begin to crystallize.
The nickname “Papa” was born out of Joe's commitment to ensuring that the young people in his neighborhood didn't grow up feeling unloved like he did. While Joe lives in the projects and struggles daily to overcome kidney disease, he becomes a wellspring of joy and motivation for countless children, such as Macon (Kwesi Boakye) and Macon’s younger sister Keisha (Gabriella Phillips), who are being raised by their grandmother. The tragic circumstances that led them to be parentless result in Macon acting out in thuggish ways and Keisha limiting her communication to words scribbled on a notepad. The sacrifices that Papa Joe makes are an effort to prevent kids like them from experiencing his same fate.
“My dream is that ‘Unconditional’ inspires cities to unite in love to rescue one of our most precious commodities: thousands of at-risk and fatherless children torn by poverty and oppression,” said the real-life Joe Bradford in a statement. He and his wife, Denise, founded Elijah’s Heart, a nonprofit organization whose purpose is to show love to underprivileged children and their families, in 2005.
Joe’s example was also what helped Samantha begin to repair her life after the murder of her husband. The film begins with her wanting to commit suicide, but ends with her finding hope and a sense of purpose. Serving children is inextricable from the redemption that Joe and Samantha experience, challenging us to think about what contributions we’re making to younger generations.
Joe credited the 40 days he spent in solitary confinement while incarcerated for bringing about a spiritual transformation that changed the course of his life. In a moment of utter darkness and depravity, he discovered the internal validation that comes from knowing that you are a child of God.
Prison teaches him the lesson of a lifetime: No matter what cards life has dealt you, no matter what mistakes you have made in your past, there is power to be found in embracing God’s unwavering, constant love for you. He spends the remainder of his life trying to offer to others the same unconditional love that God offered him.
“Unconditional” shouldn’t be reduced to a pick-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps message. It does much more than just encourage its viewers to take control of their own destinies. By finding the inner strength and help needed to overcome his circumstances, Papa Joe should inspire us all to live for something beyond ourselves. I encourage individuals, churches and nonprofits to support this film. But, more important, to follow Joe Bradford's lead by being a light in someone else’s dark place.
Rahiel Tesfamariam is a columnist and blogger for The Washington Post and The RootDC. She is the founder/editorial director of Urban Cusp, an online lifestyle magazine highlighting progressive urban culture, faith, social change and global awareness. Follow her on Twitter @RahielT.