By Chad Nance
“A child is born with no state of mind
Blind to the ways of mankind
God is smiling on you but he’s frowning too
Because only God knows what you’ll go through…”
– The Message, Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five
Fans of Cinema will remember 1982 as one of the most storied single years in film history. E.T, Conan the Barbarian, Blade Runner, Cat People, The Dark Crystal, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, First Blood, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Night Shift, An Officer & A Gentleman, Star Trek: Wrath of Khan, Sophie’s Choice, The Thing, Tron and The World According to Garp are all classics of one kind or another and they don’t even make of a complete list of 1982’s film greatness. While American Cinema was hitting a peak, the crack epidemic was raging in America’s inner cities. 1982, the new film by writer/director Tommy Oliver drops the audience into the middle of that epic struggle with an existential threat that nearly destroyed many African-American neighborhoods and families. This is no gangster film or blacksploitation flick. 1982 is a searing drama that leaves scars, and features what is probably one of the greatest performances by a child in film history.
1982 is the story of a blue-collar father in Philadelphia trying to hold onto his family, his sanity, and his hope as his wife’s descent into drug addiction tortures and damages those around her. The film brings to mind the work of post-war Italian neo-realism like The Bicycle Thief or Rocco and His Brothers. An even closer comparison can be made to the work of Charles Burnnett in films such as 1977’s Killer of Sheep and 1983′s My Brother’s Wedding.
Tommy Oliver’s film is an example of the kind of movie that is rarely seen these days- even at premier film festivals like RiverRun. 1982 is truly an independent film. John Waters once said that a real independent film is a film that a studio would never make under any circumstances. There is no way in hell that a major studio would have ever green-lit a film like 1982. Most “independent films” are really just studio style films produced on a low-budget. 1982 is a true indie like Laws of Gravity or She’s Gotta Have It.
The film begins with a title card that claims it is based on “real events.” Whether or not this is true is as irrelevant as the lack of veracity in the card before Fargo claiming that it was based on a true story. No matter what the facts were that Oliver based his script on (many from his own life), there is real, to-the-bone truth in every frame of 1982. Not the kind of facile, period “reality” that would have been created by including some fat gold chains, Puma running suits and La-di-da-di on the soundtrack. Oliver, along with his cast and crew, are working on a deeper level. The film is part urban myth, part nightmare memory and part socially realistic document of working class American’s struggle as the fall of US manufacturing began to economically decimate our inner cities. 1982 is clearly a deeply personal comment on every major aspect of a human life- being a parent, being a child, being a member of a community, being a spouse, a lover and even a friend are poured into a crucible, heated and observed like reading bloody bones.
Hill Harper’s lead performance as Tim Brown is a clear and empathetic portrayal rarely seen in films these days. Brown is simply a good man trying to do the best he can in life while maintaining his dignity, passion and hope for the future. Harper’s work isn’t large or broad. Subtlety and restraint are present throughout, even through the film’s most dynamic sequences of confrontation and violence. Harper’s Tim Brown refuses to accept the defeat inherent in his circumstances. He also refuses to allow his daughter to be short-changed by economic realities, even if that means making decisions that will cause her to direct her considerable anger and frustration back at him. Brown, as written by Oliver and performed by Harper, is also a character rarely seen in films today… a man who must and does live with the consequences of his actions, yet never compromises or backs down.
The beautiful Sharon Leal is given some of the toughest work in the film. Her Shenea Brown is selfish, petulant and uncaring. As the film progresses her physical beauty quickly disintegrates under the weight of her addictions, and as a performer, Leal enters these places with bravery and commitment. Wisely, Leal never lets the somewhat underwritten part devolve into Whitney Huston/crack head clichés. Shenea is already suffering and struggling with her own wants and limitations before she hits the first rock, and Leal lets those scenes of domestic dissatisfaction haunt the moments of the film when screaming, violence and personal degradation are called for. Leal’s performance is as painful and powerful to watch as Jessica Lange’s descent into madness in Frances as well as the more emotional masochistic elements of Isabella Rossolini‘s performance in Blue Velvet.
Bookeem Woodbine plays Tim Brown’s loyal and trustworthy cousin who has no illusions as to who Shenea really is or about the environment they are living in. Audiences will remember Woodbine from mainstream fare like Riddick and TVs Southland, to his great cameo performance as Black Hand Jack in Black Dynamite. His Scoop is a fully realized character in a part that could have been simply used for exposition and to push the story along when needed.
Comedian Wayne Brady is a revelation in 1982. He plays Alonzo, the film’s antagonist, in a performance that will redefine the actor in the way that Morgan Freeman’s performance as a pimp in Street Smart showed audiences another side of the Easy Reader and launched Freeman’s career to another level. Brady is charming, handsome, intimidating, and terrifying as Alonzo. Nothing audiences have seen Brady do before could possibly prepare them for the darkness and nihilism that pulses through Alonzo and effects everyone in his charismatic orbit.
Troi Zee plays Tim and Shenea Brown’s precocious and strong Maya in one of the most skillful, intelligent, and devastating child performances ever committed to film. Zee’s performance in 1982 puts the young actress in the same league as Jackie Cooper in The Champ, Anna Paquin in The Piano, and Natalie Portman’s turn in Léon: The Professional. What she is asked to go through physically and emotionally places her in the same club that includes Linda Blair’s work in The Exorcist. Maya is a substantial and complex part. Zee plays Maya as brilliant, charming, and rightfully confused and angry as she hammers against the glass walls that have been built around her by circumstances and tough economic and social realities. Maya is played as a real child, not an idealized vision of childhood. She struggles with loyalty, love and longing on the same emotional level as the adults around her. Maya could have been as easy part for screenwriter Oliver to stumble on. She could have been a precious archetype to hang his “message” on or at best a plot point for the story to pivot off of. Instead, Maya is written and performed with sympathy, grace and an emotional maturity rarely seen in actors of Troi Zee’s tender age.
Tommy Oliver has said his own mother was addicted to crack cocaine in real life. Perhaps it is this fact that gives the writing, the directing, and the choices made regarding his characterization of Maya a deeper resonance and understanding than is usually seen in writing a child. Oliver shot 1982 in the neighborhood where he grew up, which works toward informing the performances and making this film even more revealing and autobiographical than it might have been. 1982 is a filmmaker working out his own personal pain and that makes for the most compelling art of all.
Oliver opens the film with patient scenes of the domestic island that the Brown’s have been able to build around Maya, and closes it in the stark reality of a rehab center visiting room where Maya and her mother meet once more, but this time with a barrier of glass between them. All intimacy, privacy and safety is gone. This family now lives its broken life in the harsh glare of fluorescent lights and under the watchful gaze of guards, orderlies, cops, and doctors. Cinematographer Daniel Vecchione does director Oliver and the cast a solid by not overworking the material. His lighting is simple and realistic. Even though the majority of the shots look handheld, Vecchione does not make the mistake of allowing that to devolve into shakeycam. 1982 is not a vapid exercise in style. Like the best of Charles Burnett’s work, 1982 is shot in a way that pushes narrative and character out front and allows the filmmakers to stay out of the way.
Those who miss the 1982 screenings (RiverRun has three) will miss a film that will emerge from the 2014 RiverRun International Film Festival as one of the break-out films. 1982 enters the festival with some heat already built up behind it. It was one of eight independent film projects selected to receive a total of $340,000 in funding from the San Francisco Film Society/Kenneth Rainin Foundation Filmmaking (SFFS/KRF) grants. The film won the top prize at the US In Progress showcase in Paris last year. US in Progress is a joint initiative between the American Film Festival in Wroclaw, Poland, the Champs-Elysées Film Festival in Paris and Black Rabbit Film. It is the first and only professional event dedicated to indie American cinema, and is held twice a year. Films that were featured at recent US in Progress events have gone on to be selected for festivals such as Sundance 2013, the Berlinale 2013, SXSW 2013 and Tribeca 2013, and RiverRun 2014.
You can find screening times and tickets for 1982 HERE.