“I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me… When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination—indeed, everything and anything except me.” Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
“I went to go pick him up at Ms. Shirley’s and she ain’t have no lights. They ain’t no street lights or nothing. What’s going on?”
“I’m telling you ConEd is probably fed the fuck up. You know niggas don’t pay they bills! I stay on a payment plan.”
“No I think the government is running some typa test or some shit. They definitely doin that.”
“Your Black Panther ass would say some shit like that!”
On August 14, 2003, New York City was part of a power outage experienced by more than 50 million people across the Northeast and Canada. According to articles from NPR, Slate, and TIME, there were a lot of conflicting feelings— some were traumatized by 9/11, fearful that this could be another terrorist attack, and some were afraid that the dark nights would provide an opportunity for “looting and rioting” as a similar night in 1977 did. Instead, most would go on to remember it with great nostalgia as a night of community and love.
In looking into the event that inspired Tayler Montague’s debut short film, In Sudden Darkness, I was most struck by the articles referencing the 1977 “night of terror,” like Slate’s “Where Have All The Looters Gone” (the answer? Maybe we should ask Bloomberg). It reminded me of how pundits now discuss New York’s relationship to the anger expressed after George Floyd’s murder, as people set police cars on fire and occasionally “loot” already-empty Rolex stores. All of these writers seemed so deeply fearful of violence and uncertainty that I am immediately reminded of the gaze with which they look upon darkness. For black people, uncertainty and violence are part of our very existence in the United States—that darkness that white people are so afraid of is the very basis on which our oppression in this country has been predicated.
It is clear, from the opening shot of grade-school girls playing double-dutch outside of a school in the Bronx, the camera close and intimate with their beads and braids, that Montague is not interested in that kind of language. The racialized fearmongering of white pundits and journalists in the early 2000s articles resonates in stark contrast to the poetic, warm, dark but sunshine-y Bronx shown in the film. Over the course of 48 hours, we watch Jerome and Erica, a loving couple, their daughter Tati, and their baby son Miles, in brief vignettes: arguing about buying food, dancing to a wind up radio with little battery-powered lights around them, sitting in their car’s AC to escape the heat. Montague revels in the contradictions inherent to community—Jerome, through an incredible performance by Marcus Callender, will sometimes slip into misogynistic language, demanding that Erica go get food for the family, but in another scene, he’s dancing sweetly with his girl. There are moments of deep, community-based care: a neighbor in the projects comes to check on them in the evening, leaving a can of Lipton tea– “There’s a lot of old people in this building and I’m just doing my rounds to make sure they aight,” she says.
One of my personal favorite moments is a scene taking place on the second day: Tati and her daddy sit in the car bobbing their heads to Nas’ “Made You Look.” What makes this tender moment even more powerful is that it is followed by the only moment of true fear in this film, when the girl watches her father steal from a bodega. It is a much more intimate fear, however, than a fear of the dark, or of rioting, because it is rooted in the intense love she feels for her father—it is a fear of loss. Montague’s rhythm throughout the film is impeccable, and it pushes her audience to empathise more, to feel more, to work at reading all that is hidden in the dark. There are intimate scenes in the light, like Erica doing Tati’s hair in the morning, just as there are intimate scenes in the dark, where the viewer can hardly make out a shape outside of a ruffled sheet, and a light up toy spinning in a circle.
In her seminal piece, Playing in the Dark, Toni Morrison began to unravel and deconstruct the notion of the embedded assumption of whiteness in the literary imagination. Tayler Montague takes this effort of disentangling “literary whiteness” from our collective consciousness to cinematic space, constantly teasing the viewer with moments of light and then thwarting their desire for a pristine visual clarity, delving us deeper into an uncomfortably underexposed darkness. The genius of the film lies in those moments of darkness, and how Montague uses them to teach the viewer a new visual language. It is difficult to divorce any film dealing with a visual representation of blackness from the white gaze that is so deeply embedded in the very language of looking, but Montague succeeds in this by ripping our ability to see away, and then slowly giving it back through sound and warm spots of light.
Darkness has been synonymous with fear and negativity for as long as humans have had language, and it has been racialized for centuries. The language of light and whiteness is defined by the existence of something not-white, and it is thus that the project of many black thinkers has been to reclaim that negative space. Just as Morrison tells us that the way we have been taught to read is entangled with a white, normalizing voice, Montague asks us to rethink the cinematic tool of light—why is it that a frame must be so fearful of any visual ambiguity, any complications to its legibility… is this effort somehow complicit in the project of white supremacy?
These questions have been part of the project of developing a black consciousness for decades, and Montague imbues them with a new urgency that matches that of the powerful protests that are raging around the United States. Watching this short film while I could hear demonstrators chanting Breonna Taylor’s name outside of my apartment felt like a powerful moment. Now, more than ever, we need voices that can bring us into a new age of community and power, that are not so focused on defining blackness in relationship to whiteness, but in defining blackness as it stands on its very own, in darkness and in light.