Sunday, January 28, 2018

Faith Under Fire: The Antoinette Huff Story (Topanga Productions, Inc,, Peace Out Productions, TDJ Enterprises, Lifetime Television, 2018)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched last night’s “premiere” of one of the most extraordinary original movies Lifetime has ever given us: Faith Under Fire: The Antoinette Tuff Story. Directed by Vondie Curtis-Hall (a Black man rather than the Black woman I’d previously assumed he was) who’s worked mostly as an actor — he was on episodes of both Law and Order and the spinoff Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, the latter during Christopher Meloni’s last season on the show — and whose main directorial credit before this was a Lifetime biopic of Toni Braxton called Toni Braxton: Un-Break My Heart, Faith Under Fire actually stars the real Toni Braxton — though all we get to hear of her singing voice is a bit in the opening scene in which her radio is broadcasting Sam Cooke’s recording of “This Little Light of Mine” from his Live at the Copa album and she starts singing along to it (and quite frankly there are worse “ghost duets” imaginable than Toni Braxton and Sam Cooke!) — as Antoinette Tuff, who on August 20, 2013 was working as a bookkeeper at the McNair Learning Academy in Decatur, Georgia when she was asked to cover the front desk during lunch because the usual school receptionist had called in sick or something. While she was there a young man named Michael Brandon Hill (Trevor Morgan) sneaked onto the school campus with an AK-47 assault rifle and held Tuff at gunpoint, telling her that he was going to kill everyone in the school and she must do exactly as he said or she’d be victim number one. Showing a remarkable degree of courage and foresight and also an instinct that her own history of troubles — including a $14,000 debt and threats to repossess her car (crucial to her because in addition to working at the school she also ran a private transportation business on the side), a son in a wheelchair with a lifelong history of disabilities, and an ex-husband who on the previous New Year’s Eve had announced to her that he’d been having an affair and was leaving her for the new woman in his life — as well as a background that at age 10, she had lost her mother to cancer and her dad and his new wife had only reluctantly taken her and her siblings in, doing the Cinderella number on them and forcing them to sleep on the living-room floor while his wife’s kids by her previous husbands got the beds — would somehow make it through Hill’s consciousness and persuade him to give himself up before he actually hurt anybody. 

As things turned out, no one was killed in the incident and Tuff did eventually persuade Hill to give himself up — though quite frankly it helped that out of all the crazed gunmen who’ve staged mass shootings at public schools and other similar venues, Hill was one of the least competent. He came to McNair with a gun, a whole bag of bullets and several magazines but had not pre-loaded his weapon — most of the truly deadly mass shooters have come fully prepared, with magazines filled to their maximum capacity and one already plugged into the gun, and police who’ve had to answer such calls have told reporters that the deadliest moments in any “active shooter” incident are the first 10 minutes, when the killer is firing away and before anyone has had the chance to call the police and get them to respond. Fortunately Hill did not fire on any students or teachers in the school, just the police who came and surrounded the school to apprehend or kill him and a middle-aged Black schnook who happened to take his lunch break with headphones on, connected to a smartphone that was playing rap, and who returned to the building totally oblivious to what was going on and still with his headphones on so he couldn’t hear any sounds that might have indicated he was in danger. In a post-film “Biography” documentary on the real Antoinette Tuff, he was named as the school’s cafeteria manager (then wouldn’t he have been on duty during lunch hour?), but in the movie he just manages to come off as the typical innocent victim done in as much by his own unawareness of his surroundings as the malevolence of his would-be killer. Indeed, I found myself pointing to his image on TV and saying, “Stupid Black person,” then pointing at Toni Braxton as Antoinette Tuff and saying, “Smart Black person.” He didn’t kill anybody and the only person he even wounded was himself when he was winged by  a police bullet — his motive in the whole incident, at least as writers Laura Harrington and Stephen Kay portrayed it, seems to have been “suicide by cop” — and once Antoinette establishes that via her communications with 911 operator Kendra McCray (the ridiculously named Yaya DaCosta, who played Whitney Houston on yet another Lifetime biopic), she tells the story of her own wretched existence and thoughts of suicide to let Hill know that he’s not alone in the world and there are reasons for people to care about him, and therefore he should let the cops arrest him rather than follow through with his murderous plan. 

Faith Under Fire is an excellent film in all respects, vividly and straightforwardly directed by Vondie Curtis-Hall and containing two brilliant tour de force performances by Toni Braxton and Trevor Harris. Braxton plays her role with a quiet mixture of implacability and strength reminiscent of Whoopi Goldberg in The Color Purple, and Harris avoids the usual clichés of actors playing psychopaths (the snarling of Lawrence Tierney in Dillinger, Born to Kill and The Hoodlum and the nice-guy exterior of Anthony Perkins in Psycho) and manages to convince us that his mental state is really that jumbled that he can’t do anything right, including perpetrating a mass shooting. The documentary on the real events they showed after the dramatic film was a bit jarring — when the incident happened the real Antoinette Tuff was wearing her hair similarly to the way Braxton does in the film, but since then she’s cut it considerably shorter; also the real Michael Brandon Hill was (unsurprisingly) considerably less physically attractive than Trevor Harris; and the pregnant woman who’s allowed to leave at the outset of the incident and whom Tuff had been trying to help get health insurance for her baby’s birth was cast with a racially ambiguous actress in the dramatic film but was definitely Black in real life. But Faith Under Fire: The Antoinette Huff Story is one of Lifetime’s most astonishingly good productions, vividly dramatic, genuinely suspenseful and ending most movingly with the phone call then-President Barack Obama placed to the real Antoinette Huff to congratulate her for her heroism — and the gentle, soothing tones of our last President stand in vivid contrast to our current one and make one wonder how Trump would handle a similar situation if one occurred on his watch: probably make some pro forma acknowledgment of the courage of the person he was talking to and then, as he always does, steer the conversation entirely towards himself.