Aaron S. Bayley
The cliché about not really knowing whether someone loves you until you set them free is put to the extreme test in Tommy Oliver's semi-autobiographical powerful melodrama 1982, starring Hill Harper as Tim Brown, a hard-working, blue-collar family man trying to simultaneously
save his marriage and shield his daughter from his wife's drug addiction.
The film, which debuted on September 8 at the Toronto International Film Festival, is loosely based on Oliver's childhood struggle to come to terms with his mother's addiction to crack and is set in the same Philadelphia' West Oak Lane neighbourhood (and house) the director grew up in. In it, we see what appears to be a loving family with a strong bond: Brown, a laundromat owner and hopeless romantic who plays Stylistics records and playfully follows his wife around with a video recorder; Shenae (Sharon Leal), Brown's wife, who seems tired but content, and their 10-year-old daughter, Maya (Troi Zee), an intelligent and intuitive girl who read the Illiad and routinely beats both her parents at Scrabble. Even in the fleeting glimpses we are given of the family's idyllic existence we sense the dark undertones of a past we are not privy to. We see that Shenae seems exhausted and unfulfilled washing dishes and dusting shelves and wonder whether she is truly happy. When she gently spurns her husband's plan of attending a Dells concert, we know something is not right. When she doesn't return home until early the next morning, Tim asks her where she's been. When he finds out she wasn't at her friend Neecy's as she claimed, Tim confronts her. The couple argue, and Shenae packs a bag and leaves.
What follows is a woman's desperate downward spiral into addiction and her husband's desperate attempt to save her while trying to maintain his dignity and sanity. In one of the film's most painful and poignant scenes, Tim, after learning his wife is once again using crack cocaine, goes to a park in search of the local drug pusher, Alonzo, who Tim believes is responsible for preying on her vulnerability. After being told by Alonzo's lackeys that he isn't around, Tim starts to leave when he peers down an alleyway and see his wife performing oral sex act on another man. In another heart-wrenching scene, Shenae, who has pawned off her wedding ring, returns home high and disheveled and in desperate need of a fix during Maya's birthday party. Unaware and unconcerned that she has forgotten her own daughter's birthday, Shenae refuses to congratulate her daughter and ends up stealing her birthday presents from the kitchen table.
Instead of depicting the life of the junkie, as so many movies do, 1982 shows how the addict's behaviour and decisions affect their loved ones. Leal plays the role of the junkie brilliantly; whether she is deceptively sweet while trying to get her husband to open the front door after he has the locks changed, or a raging and defiant addict, her pain is transparent. Zee does a fine job as a daughter coping with her mother's addiction and her father's decision to help her using a strategy of tough love. But it is Harper who shines brightest and who we empathize with the most. He refuses to break, even after Shenae humiliates him repeatedly, ridicules his manhood, and pokes fun at his social status. All through the film we are waiting for him to expose a crack in his armour and show weakness. He comes close, but he never wavers from his love for his wife and commitment to his family.
This is an absolutely superb film that will have you feeling anxious and stressed throughout. Oliver does a fine job of getting the actors to capture the space and tension, and therefore the truth, of each scene. After the film, an audience member asked the director and cast (Oliver, Harper, and Leal) whether, considering the negative stereotypes of African-Americans in film, they felt a responsibility to depict a more positive, inspirational narrative. Harper replied that that is exactly what the film is. And he's right. 1982 is no blaxploitation film. There is no negative racial dynamic in the scenes between white police officers and black people. Sure, it depicts the harsh realities--the drugs, poverty, and prostitution--of a predominantly black neighbourhood in hardscrabble Philly in the early '80s. but 1982 does not focus on criminal behaviour, sex, and violence. Instead, it depicts the raw, unfiltered emotions of a man being wrenched apart from his wife, and his willingness to go through hell and back to save her. If that's not inspirational, I don't know what is.