Tayler Montague’s Stunning Short Film In Sudden Darkness Takes You Inside The 2003 New York Blackout

Photo: Courtesy of TIFF.
Tayler Montague was 6 years old when the lights went out on August 14, 2003, in a mass power outage that would come to be known as the New York Blackout. For nearly 48 hours, certain areas of the city — including the Bronx — were lit only by candlelight, its residents relying on community and family in the face of sweltering heat and uncertainty. 
It was a formative moment for Montague, who, now 23, is debuting her short film, In Sudden Darkness, at the New York Film Festival. Centered around Tati (Sienna Rivers), a child close to the age Montague herself was at the time, the 13-minute short is a self-contained jewel, a quiet but vivid slice of life evoking the strong feelings and imagery that such a moment awakens in a child
“I remember it was hot. I remember playing the radio and not being able to see my hand in front me,” Montague told Refinery29 over the phone ahead of In Sudden Darkness’ drive-in screening on September 20. “When you took the steps, there were a lot of candles and people banding together. It was definitely a community experience. It wasn’t traumatizing or a bad thing. I was just very aware of myself and aware of the world in a way I hadn’t been before.”
Montague, a film critic and programmer, conceived of the film after graduating from SUNY Purchase in 2019. “Growing up, I found hints of myself within the works of filmmakers like The Hughes Brothers, Kasi Lemmons, and Michael Schultz,” she wrote in her director's statement accompanying the film. “However, this year I decided I no longer wanted to just see glimpses of my life but the complete picture. This moved me to step behind the camera.”
“I'm interested in girlhood and coming of age,” Montague added. “I thought that that was a perspective that definitely needed to be on screen. Black women and girls are at the center of everything I do, so it felt like a no brainer for me.”
Tati experiences the blackout with her parents, Erica (Raven Goodwin) and Jerome Moore (Marcus Callendar), along with her baby brother. At first, it’s an adventure, as she and her mother venture out into the crowded streets to get food, and the family sits down for a candlelit dinner, followed by a sleepover in the living room. But Tati also witnesses upheaval during an outing with her father the next day. There’s a sudden crash, a siren rings, and people start to run past her, carrying items and yelling. That visual translation of childhood memories rooted in emotion rather than rational understanding is key to what makes In Sudden Darkness so powerful. It doesn’t matter that Tati might not consciously understand what she’s seeing unfold. She feels it — and so do we. 
“Children do have sense; they are aware, even though they may not explicitly articulate through words,” Montague said. “Tati is processing everything that's happening around her. She knows something here feels funny. She doesn't have to speak every second, but she's there, she's witnessing and she's experiencing it.”
Rivers, a first-time actress, is a particularly great find. Her face is wonderfully expressive, turning simple scenes of family life into memories that will live on in her mind. In one particularly poignant moment, she and Erica are out on the balcony, as the latter does her daughter’s hair. It’s a moment of normalcy in an otherwise unusual event, the kind of magical sensory snippet one carries into adulthood as a symbol of childhood. 
“That's absolutely a thousand percent of childhood memory,” Montague said. “My mother greasing my scalp on the terrace of the house. I wanted Tati to have a bonding moment with each of her parents, and the bonding moments I shared with my mom were always centered around hair and these moments of caring for one another and making sure I look well and listening to me talk about my day.”
In Sudden Darkness has already earned raves from prior festival appearances at BlackStar in Philadelphia and the Toronto International Film Festival, but NYFF will mark the first time the film screens for a crowd in Montague’s hometown. Putting out a first film during a global pandemic, as well as a flashpoint in the Black Americans’ ongoing fight for civil rights wasn’t exactly the plan, but Montague welcomes the kind of conversations that her film has sparked. 
“People are drawing parallels between the film and the contemporary moment. I see that, but I also think that all the qualities of the summer that we're going through are not new by any means. I like that we're having these kinds of conversations in which the uprisings are at the forefront. In this film, the aspect that feels evergreen is the community. At the end of the day, we're all we’ve got. All these other socio political things never go away. Community is integral.”
Montague isn’t sure what’s next beyond the fact that she’ll certainly be heading to the drive-in at the Brooklyn Army Terminal on Sunday at 8 p.m., where In Sudden Darkness will play ahead of Garrett Bradley’s Time, another acclaimed film by a Black woman director. 
“I'm happy to even have this short, and to know that I definitely want to be a filmmaker,” Montague said. “Black cinema is in a really wonderful place. Black women filmmakers are dominating and killing it.”

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