The biggest takeaway from 1982, writer-director Tommy Oliver’s debut feature film, is that Hill Harper should simply be getting more roles. With a decades-spanning career that includes recurring television parts on the now defunct CSI: NY and Soul Food, the 47-year-old actor and writer has had the fate of many a black actor in Hollywood: steady work, yes, but with few opportunities for roles that appropriately show off his movie star potential.
With 1982, that potential is on full display as Harper plays Timothy, a man struggling to raise his young daughter Maya (wonderful newcomer Troi Zee) in the midst of his wife Shenae’s (Sharon Leal) growing drug habit.
Following in the tradition of movies like Spike Lee’s Crooklyn, the movie is a generally well crafted portrait of black life in 1980s Philadelphia, with a straightforward but engaging narrative that breaks down this general, hazy idea we may have of the “crack epidemic” into a deeply personal, human story.
Juxtaposed with grainy videos of the family during happier days, this is a bleak story that gets bleaker.
When we first meet the main trio, there’s already a growing distance between Shenae and Timothy, which is only widened by the appearance of Wayne Brady as a (surprisingly believable) hardened dealer from Shenae’s past. Once the drugs get involved, Shenae disappears, and the focus is shifted to those left behind - hopeful Timothy and his precocious daughter Maya.
This isn’t necessarily a film about drugs, about how awful they are, about how they ruin lives and so on. That’s a given, and there isn’t much complexity here in terms of the pitfalls of drug abuse as Leal turns in a good but obvious portrayal of crack addiction. If one had to pinpoint the main theme of the movie, or at the very least its most engaging theme, it’s that of black fatherhood. We don’t often see dramatic stories of black fathers on screen, certainly not those concerning fathers and daughters, and here Oliver has excelled at presenting a loving and complex relationship between the two.
It’s in the moments playing opposite the very talented Troi Zee that Harper’s performance truly shines, and even more so in those quiet moments when the camera rests on him, alone on screen, saying nothing, conveying only with his expression the sense of hopelessness and bewilderment that comes from having to keep it together when everything is falling apart. Where the story itself dips here and there into moments of schmaltz and oversentamentality (the ending suffers the most from this), Harper’s choices are consistently real and consistently of the moment.
Enough cannot be said for how refreshing it is to see characters like these relate, interact, and grow with one another on screen.
Zeba Blay is a Ghanaian-born film and culture writer based in New York. She is a contributor to Huffington Post, Africa Style Daily, and Slant Magazine. She co-hosts the weekly podcast Two Brown Girls, and runs a personal movie blog, Film Memory. Follow her on Twitter @zblay.