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TIFF 2013 Reviews – Tommy Oliver’s Debut ‘1982’ Provides A Platform For Hill Harper To Shine

TIFF 2013 Reviews - Tommy Oliver's Debut '1982' Provides A Platform For Hill Harper To Shine

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.

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Hill was quite good, although after watching the film myself at the festival and based on the feedback from the audience, the general sentiment that night was that Sharon Leal was the real stand-out performance of the film, so I'm very surprised this reviewer has been so dismissive of it. Troi Zee was also getting some very well-deserved props that night.


"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"

I believe that line would be better stated if "many" was replaced by the words "the overwhelming majority". And, maybe, the ambiguous words "movie star" isn't telling the whole story (I'll get back to that).

But I agree, Hill Harper is an excellent actor whose name should fall off our lips as readily as our more "popular" black leading actors. So quick… in less than 5 seconds name the first 3 black "movie stars" that pop in your head… I am counting…1-2-3-4…

Okay, times up, if Denzel and Will Smith is on your list, don't make your move too soon, the devil's in a few details. Box-office mojo has a list of the highest-grossing actors and actresses of all time by the combined box-office gross in the United States. Surprisingly, Denzel and Will are not in the top 10, but wait, all goodbye is not gone. There ARE three other black actors in the TOP FIVE, #2 Eddie Murphy, #3 Morgan Freeman and Samuel L. Jackson at #5. Denzel and Will Smith bring in the bacon at #43 and #11 respectively. Of special note, Denzel's top grossing film was American Gangster and Will's was Independence Day. Now I don't know what to make of all of this, but, hmmm… I am sure some film scholars or pea counters or black history majors can read between the blurred lines…

But, of course, I do have a few opinions on the matter.

Well, what makes a "movie star", or who makes a movie star, anyway? I think it's safe to say their looks play an important role, but certainly not "good looks", because Samuel Jackson and Morgan Freeman wouldn't be on anyone's sexiest man of the year list, would they?

Since we all can agree that "handsome" is off the table, what does a movie star look like? I mean, Hill Harper is a fine actor (and some would say an attractive man) who did a stellar job in Lackawanna Blues, and Love, Sex and Eating the Bones. And, he was the best thang about Pete Chapman's not so great film "Premium" opposite Zoe Saldona and Dorian Missick. However, he doesn't look like a movie star in my opinion because his pockets, and his friends pockets, don't have the green mumps. You know, I think, to a large degree that "mean green", money honey, defines a movie star. Consequently, when it's all said and done, when it's broken down to the real nitty-gritty, the white audience makes movie stars and history has said there's only a few roles/characters they will accept black actors in.

Tommy Oliver

Thanks for taking the time to watch and review my film Zeba – oversentamentalities and all :-)



Wayne Brady's been hiding a sharp edge beneath singing and dancing and laughing for a while now. I caught him on a comedy roast going at the rest of the panel with verbal shivs.


Looking forward to seeing this. … Some of my fave Hill Harper Indies … Love, Sex and Eating the Bones, Constellation, Lackawanna Blues. … Zeba is right, Hill often gets shortchanged when it comes to the big screen. He has so many leading man qualitites!


It was my favorite film of the festival and Hill Harper really was magnificent.

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