A frightening scenario played out in west Greenville on Tuesday night as someone who appeared to be a hooded gunman stepped into a downtown-area diner at closing time. As onlookers stared in silence, Chris Crutchfield confronted a sales clerk counting cash at Da Lunch Box on Dickinson Avenue.
It looked like a scene from a movie. Fortunately, that's exactly what it was.
The gun was a fake, and Crutchfield was simply playing a part in a short film being produced in Greenville. Like the robbery, the film is fictional, but it aims a spotlight on the unfortunate realities of life for many children who grow up without a father.
Titled “Stuck,” the film tells the story of a teenage boy who runs away from home when he learns his father is about to be released from prison. Angry and bitter, Darren is not ready to face the man who left him fatherless in his childhood. But then an unexpected encounter in a church helps him to see things in a different light.
“We’re looking to address the issue of fatherlessness ... that is a great need in our community,” producer BJ Emerson said. “(We're) bringing light to this, bringing the community around it not only to drive awareness but to hopefully hold out some hope.”
A collaboration between Emerson's production company, Buzzadelic, and Building Hope Community Life Center, the film features Building Hope staff member Nyrobi Thomas as part of its seven-member cast and stars 20-year-old Rael Thigpen, who spent much of his childhood in the nonprofit ministry's after-school program. “Stuck” is set to premiere at Building Hope's annual fundraising banquet early next year.
“As a whole, the film is a reflection of what Building Hope does every day in the lives of kids in our community,” Emerson said, “meeting them where they are and helping them understand that there's a better way, giving them this other option for restoration and to end the cycle of fatherlessness in their families.”
For Thigpen, a cinematic arts and theater major at Liberty University, getting into character for the film's lead role required little imagination. Growing up in Greenville, Thigpen never remembers having a father.
“Really, ultimately, I see God as my father,” said Thigpen, who was just a baby when his father died.
“I used to not understand why I did not have a dad. … Along with not even having a father, I didn't know what to do,” he said. “I didn't have that wisdom and that guidance. I believe that God orchestrated the people at Building Hope to come into my life.”
Emerson, who co-wrote the script, based on a screenplay by Ryan Folmsbee, can relate. He spent most of his teenage years fatherless; his dad was in prison.
“My father was, at one point, facing 76 years in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania,” Emerson said.
“Part of the reason I'm doing this is I certainly know this cycle of fatherlessness.”
Retired Pitt County District Superior Court Judge Rusty Duke, who plays a cameo role in “Stuck,” knows the cycle as well. Duke credits the guidance of a strong father with giving him the stability he needed while growing up. But in decades on the bench, he noticed that the majority of defendants that appeared before him lacked the support of a father.
“I noticed early on that the number one characteristic of the people who appear in court as defendants is that they've not had any significant positive relationship with their biological fathers,” Duke said. “I'd say eight out of 10 people who end up as a defendant in court have had that experience.”
Duke, a longtime Building Hope supporter, said dedicated mentors and other positive role models keep many who grow up without a father from succumbing to a life of crime.
“But there's no substitute for a biological father,” he said. “If the fathers returned to their children, went back to their homes and helped raise their children and became real fathers to their children, you would see at least a 50 percent reduction in crime.”
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 24 million children in America live in a home that does not include their biological fathers. The National Fatherhood Initiative reports that in 2005, the federal government spent at least $99.8 billion providing assistance to father-absent homes. The initiative, founded in 1994, also reports that children in homes without fathers are more likely to have behavioral problems, abuse drugs and alcohol, become pregnant, drop out of school, commit crimes and go to prison.
Emerson was able to defy those odds. He and his father, who was converted to the Christian faith while in prison, reconciled, breaking the cycle that had begun a generation earlier when the elder Emerson's father abandoned him.
Since then, father and son have shared their story with thousands of inmates. Emerson hopes “Stuck” can become part of that prison ministry.
“My family was able to break out of (the cycle), but it's only through forgiveness,” Emerson said.
“Can forgiveness really break the cycle of fatherlessness? That's what this (film) is about. We believe, and I know for a fact, that it can, so that's really what's driving this.”
“Stuck,” which cost about $10,000 to produce, has applied for a Grassroots Arts Project Grant through the North Carolina Arts Council. Emerson and director Joe Tese hope to submit the work to film festivals and to share it with churches and community organizations that are working to address the issue of fatherlessness.
“We really want to make a film that's meaningful,” said Tese, an East Carolina University graduate with a degree in cinematic arts and media production. “We want to make something that's impactful. ... We want something that will start a discussion.”
Building Hope Executive Director James Haskins hopes the film will be the start of something that will benefit students at Building Hope. “Stuck” is planned as the first in a "Stories of Hope" series that aims to include students in the production process.
“We're hoping to do two things with that: one, communicate the issue that's happening in the broader community but also showcase some of our kids,” Haskins said.
“(We're) cultivating talent of kids in front of and behind the camera,” he said. “That's the hope for the long haul. This is just the first step.”