Tayler Montague’s debut short film, In Sudden Darkness, about a young working-class family in the Bronx navigating the Northeast blackout of 2003, is—contrary to its bleak-sounding title—a portrait of profound love and joy. “I didn’t have a scary blackout experience,” says the native New Yorker, who experienced the blackout as a child. “I mean, it’s corny, right? But love is the core of everything in that household.” The lights go out, and when night hits and the community starts tripping on one another’s shoes in the dark, there’s comfort knowing everyone can be recognized just by the sound of their voices. Montague also uses sound to tease a sense of danger. The noise of a bodega window shattering intrudes on the silence as young Tatianna (Sienna Rivers) rests in the passenger seat of her dad’s car. In a moment, smiling passersby run from the store with soda bottles that slip from their fingers and explode on the ground. The effect is more one of excitement, and Montague moves too quickly for worry to linger. Upstairs, the hot apartment is aglow with candlelight, and Tatianna’s parents, Erica (Raven Goodwin) and Jerome (Marcus Callender), in love, have a brick oven pizza and music from a battery-powered radio to keep them dancing through the night.
Growing up, Montague’s own parents encouraged her every interest. At 13, she wanted to be the youngest girl to publish a novel, but she soon discovered screenplays and film. An early influence was Michael Schultz’s The Last Dragon: “I ran it to death in our tape player,” Montague says. Other early favorites were Sparkle, Why Do Fools Fall in Love and Brandy in Cinderella. Her parents pushed her toward independent fare, advising her to watch Just Another Girl on the I.R.T., a picture she recently revisited as an adult when she moderated the film’s Q&A with writer/director Leslie Harris at BAM.
Montague attended SUNY Purchase for communications, and while there was accepted into the NYFF55 Critics Academy. She went on to write for publications like Film Comment, Little White Lies, NYLON and Pitchfork; did curatorial work for The Studio Museum in Harlem, The Metropolitan Museum of Art and MoMA; and programmed for BAM and Alamo Drafthouse. “In lieu of film school, I created my own Montague film school,” she says.
In Sudden Darkness came to Montague like a spark after graduating last year. A colleague put her in touch with producer Eliza Soros, of ZAZA Productions, and they, along with a dedicated group of family and close friends, committed to shoot the film that summer in Montague’s grandmother’s apartment in Soundview. At 23, fresh out of college and with a short that’s played both Toronto and the New York Film Festival, Montague faces a future that is wide open, and she doesn’t want to narrow down the possibilities. But some things are certain: “Black women and girls are the center of my universe, so that’s a definite. And I want to put a spotlight on Black working-class life, love, tenderness and care. That’s another definite.”—Aaron Hunt