Tonight Is Our Night
I’m sensitive about my shit.
Cinematography by Crash. Whatever else you might think about Chris Robinson’s feature film debut, this credit for his longtime music video DP is certainly long overdue. Certainly, ATL is good-looking: bright and energetic, with camerawork deft rather than showy. And these smart visuals go to a good cause, a story that’s intelligent, respectful of its characters, and not so booty- or gangstalicious as the trailers suggest.
Though occasionally limited by Screenplay 101 elements (rising arcs, crisis in the third act), ATL is also expansive in its thinking about kids coming up in the hood. The primary plot concerns 17-year old Rashad (T.I./Tip Harris, who is very good) and his 14-year-old brother Ant (Evan Ross Naess), orphaned and living with their Uncle George (Mykelti Williamson). Rashad’s voiceover anchors a central-ish point of view, though ATL cuts all over the place, including life lessons for his friends and family as well. A high school senior, Rashad works with George cleaning office buildings at night, trying to put away enough money to ensure Ant’s education, that is, his opportunity to get out of the hood. But Ant’s got his own anger working, resenting big brother’s rule-making and seeing a flashier role model in Marcus (Big Boi), who rolls up as if on cue, equipped with fine rims and pitbulls.
While Ant and Rashad cultivate but don’t quite discuss the growing tensions between them, the film provides any number of alternative and simultaneous plots. In theory, these show the diversity of what goes on in the ATL, but in practice, the movie sometimes feels like Spike Lee’s can feel, a rush of plots and ideas, losing focus in the thrill of getting them all out there. Still, basic elements come through: Rashad’s gift for comic-book drawing, his evolving relationship with George, and his romance with a pretty girl named New-New (Lauren London).
In between, Rashad spends time with his boys down at the skating rink and Waffle House (where Monica is a waitress, on screen for about 30 seconds, but good to see). The skating is part nostalgic (though not set so squarely in the past as Roll Bounce) and part athletic, more another context for the development of relationships than a narrative focus. While the camera picks out the separate teams at Jellybeans—the Fly Girls, the Cool Cats, the Cash Money Crew—Rashad describes the scene. They work on their moves, on and off the floor, as each member of Rashad’s team gets a little story action.
Preppy-looking Esquire (Jackie Long) attends private school on a scholarship, works at the golf course (where he hustles white boys who presume the caddy can’t play), and pursues a college recommendation letter from a local CEO, John Garnett (Keith David). Their first meeting at the club has Esquire in waiter mode serving drinks and doling out compliments: surrounded by white guys smoking cigars and playing pool, the two black men size each other up. Lurking in the background is a painting of a Confederate officer with flag a-waving behind him, and indeed, Esquire’s efforts to get ahead and Garnett’s own backstory (he came up from the hood and refuses to look or even give back, as this might mean acknowledging his underclass roots). Despite his money and status, Garnett remains righteously uncomfortable in this white world, and yes, he’ll learn to deal with that by the time ATL is over.
The fact that Garnett has a huge house and a dynamic wife (Lonette McKee, who sadly only shows up for one scene), he’s not quite figured out how to be a progressive father figure, to a mentee like Esquire or his own child. And in this, he’s connected thematically to George, whose efforts to maintain his own sense of identity and place leads to behaviors at once comic and poignant (he labels his cereal boxes, keeps count of how many bowls’ worth the boys eat). While Rashad sees George as missing the point of parenting, it turns out that both miss the slide Ant makes into Marcus’ sphere, until Ant’s discovered dealing marijuana at school. Then the outrage and recriminations fly, eventually bringing Rashad and George closer together but still leaving Ant out, indignant and in search of options that won’t leave him feeling disappointed, as he perceives George and his brother to be.
The film does a good job of showing what’s appealing about a cat like Marcus, namely, he brings into the neighborhood the sort of flash that Garnett keeps secured on his gated estate. And the first step toward that sort of conspicuous consumption is visible in some of the kids’ self-performances, namely, New-New and her girlfriends’ ghetto-fabulous outfits, big jewelry (New-New has a pair of sunglasses with her name on them, their tres-coolness underlined by a smart close-up at the public pool), and seeming gifts for shoplifting. And Teddy (Jason Weaver) works at another sort of ornamentation, designing and applying gaudily creative caps and grills.
While the movie shows a range of ambitions and self-performances, by kids and adults, it doesn’t judge them, but considerers how they come to see options. Certainly, Rashad’s art gets the most play (his sketches show his emotional trajectory as much as they display his talent), but all of them—including Teddy, Esquire, George, and New-New—make their own identities through the work they do and the relationships they forge. Sometimes too earnest, mostly complicated, and always generous, ATL never loses sight of this truth, that the kids’ experiences and decisions have contexts.