At Sundance ‘05, as in many ones psat, the underprivileged feature prominently in documentaries both long and short. One of the more powerful ones that I’ve seen is “Family Portrait”, a kind of where-are-they-now look at a poverty-stricken African American family once immortalized in the pages of Life Magazine by celebrated journalist Gordon Parks. The year was 1968 and the Fontenelle family, all ten (?) of them, was a family not much unlike many of the others living in Harlem at the time: poor, ravaged, overcrowded, and overlooked. As part of a special report on race and poverty in America, Parks undertook a groundbreaking feature on the Fontenelles and in the process fell hard for this suffering group of lost souls. “Family Portrait” is part heart-wrenching update, part tearful reminiscence of both Parks and the two (!) surviving members of the family.
According to the film, things never got much better for the poor Fontenelles since the ’68 article. As if extreme poverty and an abusive, alcoholic father weren’t enough, their house, which Parks acquired for them, burned down and many of the children turned to drugs, crime, or prostitution. Astonishingly, only two of the Fontenelle children, Diana and Richard, survived their twenties, while the others either overdosed, went missing, or contracted the “virus”. The story of the two surviving children is nothing short of miraculous: Richard is married with children and a (mildly) successful R&B producer, while Diana has found God and ditched the drugs.
Director Patricia Riggen has crafted a quietly moving film that is simultaneously devastating and inspiring. She is to be commended for even remembering the Fontenelles, let alone focusing so much loving energy on what’s left of them today. She respectfully guides the audience through the hardships of the past, triumphs of the present, and ultimately to an emotional gathering of Diana and Richard and their children at a Parks exhibit in New York City. Through the shedding of tears, the surviving Fontenelles seem to finally be shedding their pain and moving forward with their lives. Like the famous article that inspired it, “Family Portrait” is a true document of the ravages of poverty and the will to succeed against such improbable odds.