Sol Guy's Reconciliation of Family, Fatherhood and Identity Through 'The Death of My Two Fathers'

By Brigitte Carreiro for WORLD Channel

When Sol Guy’s father William died, he left behind video tapes sharing the story of his life story for his children. Twenty years later, Guy, who carried the tapes with him wherever he moved, had yet to watch them. But when the moment came, the result was The Death of My Two Fathers, a deeply personal documentary about family, sorrow, healing and how we come to understand our identities. 

In the film, Guy goes on an extended journey of exploration and self-discovery; the filmmaker visited the people and places meaningful to William, forging new connections with the siblings and relatives he had never met and confronting the grief he hadn’t previously been able to. Guy, through the course of documenting this story, realized that he could take the lessons of his late father into his relationships with those who remained with him, breaking a cycle of fear when it came to dealing with his stepfather’s ALS prognosis.

“The film is about family. It's about fatherhood and how a relationship with death is not an ending – it’s actually a beginning and transformation, if we choose to engage in it,” Guy said. “Perhaps that's why people are relating to it, because it's about these things that are universal to being human and trying to navigate this short time we have on the planet.”

In an exclusive interview, Guy spoke of the emotional journey behind the film, what he hopes his own children will take away from it and how Blackness, fatherhood and healing are tied together. 

WORLD Channel: How did the making of your film help you deal with the loss of your father?

Sol Guy: The initial idea for the film was, “What if I retraced my parents' journey out of the U.S., from Canada and the West Coast, back to where they were from and where they met.” As I was thinking about the journey, I started mapping it out. Where are we going to go? How are we going to do it? When I go to Kansas City, I could see my sister, Travestine, and give her the tapes that our father left. [But] if I'm going to give her the tapes, I should probably watch them. 

It was something I needed to do. I had never watched the tapes, because I couldn't. I've traveled the world a few times over, and for 20 years, in my little backpack, I always had them with me. And I never watched one frame. I realized in that moment that I had to watch them. I watched them by myself, all eight hours in one sitting. By the end, I was probably two inches from the screen. I was very emotional – a lot of tears, a lot of laughter. I was blown away at what my father had left me and my lack of understanding of how important it actually was.

God's timing is perfect. It was the right time for me to watch those tapes. I'm grateful I’d never watched them before. I guess I wasn't ready. And that's the thing of a film; I was going [one] way, and then it went in the complete other direction, because when I watched those tapes, I underestimated what that was going to do to me.

The film gave me an opportunity to face the loss. It was a healing practice; you're making art to get outside of what you know and put something in front of you. And I was radically changed over the course of those four years. I'm grateful, and things emerged and happened that I could never have imagined.

WC: How did the dynamic between you and your siblings change?

SG: I went into making this film a bit selfishly. I needed to go to some places that I was scared of, that place being where my father was raised – Kansas City – and connect with the Black side of my family. I was disconnected from the root of my family. I was only able to meet my brother once; he passed away at 49. I didn't have an established relationship with my sister and the large family that I have there.

We all knew our father at different stages. He wasn't in Travestine and Richard's life as much as he was in [Shoshana and Jada’s], but you rub off the edges over time. I looked for some of those sharp edges to try to understand myself and reconstruct it. I wasn't aware of the effect that would have on my family members. I probably couldn't. In some ways, I think I might have been a bit of a bull in the china shop, but ultimately everyone was really supportive.

I was the most intimidated by Travestine; her experience is so different from mine. I remember sitting with Travestine on the first trip trying to explain [the film] to her. They had already accepted. I felt good, [but] I was still nervous. I was like, "What am I going to say to her about this film? Why do I want to do this?" I looked at her and said, “The best way I'm able to get to know people is by making stuff with them. That's what I've been doing my whole life. And I would love to get to know you, making this film about our father." She looked at me, smiled and said, "Yeah, bet."

I now get the phone calls from the family that I wouldn't have. It's the things unseen that both repair and ripple outward and backwards that are some of the biggest gifts you could receive. We're in each other's lives. It doesn't have to be perfect, we don't have to talk every day. But there's something, in a very gentle way, that's mended that circle.

WC: Why was the inclusion of your children essential in the film?

SG: One of the pieces I think about a lot that inshallah will be something that I'll continue to understand is the shoots I did with my kids. [My daughter Soleil] is 18 now; I think she was 13 or 14 [then]. She doesn't like looking at the movie right now, because she's a young woman now. Her little brother Shakur was 11, and he's 15 now. There are memories of taking them to my family home and watching them play in the places me and Shoshana played. Bringing my kids to these spaces brought up a lot of emotion. I was telling them stories that I hadn't shared with them before.

I needed to reshape my relationship with my father because I'm a father. There are a lot of similarities in our lives. If you can address patterns and push past them, then perhaps you don't pass them on. There are things I've inherited that I have the opportunity to not pass on. 

When I'm long gone, perhaps as my father did for me and for my siblings, this will mean something to them. That thought is a ripple that excites me. It’s wild to think that my father left us a gift of a story not knowing that his kids would have the capacity to create and make something through that together. The film is a letter to my kids. What will they do with that moving forward? I don't know. But thinking about how I don't know the outcome of making this keeps me excited.

WC: What did the filmmaking process give you in terms of understanding your identity?

SG: We had a few places mapped out when I was going to Waterloo, [Iowa]. My Uncle Jimmy took me to the family house where my father was born and grew up. He took me to the old gas station that his father ran, which was the only Black gas station and one of three Black businesses in Waterloo at the time. But before he showed me all these places of memory and pride, the first place he wanted to take me was a cemetery to see my great-great-grandfather's grave – the original William Guy. 

When I went there, I found Marley May Guy, my great-great-great-grandmother – my sister is Jada May Guy. There’s a lineage. When I stood at their graves, I had a visceral feeling, almost like I got zapped. I felt a root, a connection. It felt like something familiar and something I'd never felt before. We're all looking for our story. We're all looking to understand where we're from. 

WC: How does The Death of My Two Fathers add to the discourse around race in America?

SG: I grew up in Grand Forks, a small town in British Columbia, Canada, about six hours east of Vancouver. A very small community – blink and you miss it. Not diverse in traditional ways, but diverse in experience and in the way that people wanted to care for each other. A safe place, which for a lot of my brothers and sisters growing up in America, that wasn’t the case. You could talk about race, America and Canada, but it boils down to safety. If you're safe, you can take risks, you can explore, you can think, you can ask questions and you can get outside of your known environment.

While I'm mixed, the world has only ever seen me or approached me as a Black man. When you're born in this country as a Black man, there's this thing that gets put on you. It's like a yoke. It contains you, and your safety is in danger. Ta-Nehisi Coates says, “You're living with your body being in danger,” so you put on this armor that's both imposed, and then you build it out to protect yourself.

The gift of growing up in Canada in that small town was that it didn't get put on me, so I’ve been able to navigate the world very differently. I see some of my friends who are very successful and have done all the things in this country, and they still have that thing on them. And I don't think people really understand what that feels like. I can objectively look at it, I can understand the emotion of it, but it's a very hard thing.

The most radical thing you can do is to transform yourself and stand as that transformed person. That's a difficult journey. We look at things in America as a monolith; I prefer to look at the nuance, and find ways to look at these things and take the responsibility for ourselves to potentially shift these things. Are there things we can do in the Black community as men to start to change those narratives? What are we doing to perpetrate ongoing violence and disconnection? It’s outside of us, and we need to point them out and stand in solidarity to change them. The most radical thing you could do in your life is to look in the mirror.

WC: What do you hope audiences will take away from your film?

SG: I made this film for myself, but when I think about how audiences relate, I get excited about fathers and Black fathers. And everyone talking about not having fathers, becoming fathers, being separated from their children, but doing the work to try to work back towards them. My hope is that this gives men – [whether] you’re home every day with your kids, separated or unable to be in touch – a pathway back to themselves, or at least offer something in the space of how to show up and heal.

As men, it’s a narrow space to talk about the things that we feel. I hope that there's a place where we can talk about the things that we feel as men and how hard that can be sometimes, but encourage people to find their way back, because eventually you will. It could be on your last breath, but there's a hole in your heart when you're separated from your children that we as a society could do a lot more to make space to acknowledge. I made choices that put me at odds with [my children’s] mother, yet we both worked really hard to create a new space where we could still hold love for our children. The hope for this film is [to see] that there's always a time to build back.

The other thing is that we understand the power of telling our story, documenting our story and sharing. We’ve got all these devices. Go talk to your grandma or your grandfather, your sons and daughters, your aunt or uncle or the OG that helped you when you were 14. Go sit down, put the phone on and record audio. Get these stories so you can share them with others. It might just be to play it later, it might be because someone else will discover it.

When we capture stories that are in our lineage or in our community, we have a much better understanding of who we are. It's the only way we've survived as humans. It is not too late, and don't let the daunting task of, “What will I do with it?” be a deterrent, because the reality is that you don't have to do anything with it. Be present with the story and capture it.

Watch Sol's interview, now streaming on YouTube:
The Death of My Two Fathers is now streaming online,
on YouTube & on the PBS app.

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