Angel is a girl with a mission. On her eighteenth birthday, she’s released from juvie after a year’s imprisonment. She leaves with two objectives. One: to find a gun. Two: to find out where her father lives. Newcomer Dominique Fishback gives a captivating performance in Night Comes On, the flashes of vulnerability in Angel making it impossible to look away from the devastating story. Angel’s mother was murdered by her father, who has been living free while his two daughters were shunted from foster home to foster home.
The driving force behind the film is Angel’s need to avenge her mother’s death. In her single-minded pursuit of these goals, it becomes clear that Angel is as determined as she is loyal to the memory of her mother. Only one thing has the power to shift Angel’s focus from revenge: her ten-year-old sister, Abby.
Night Comes On shows Black women and girls trapped in a legal system where they’re likely to be punished for acting in self-defense or in response to abuse, and the men who harm them are likely to face little to no consequences.
There are so many rules to catch Angel out and land her back in jail, but no substantial support mechanisms to help her make a success of this newfound freedom. Her jaded support worker gives Angel no useful advice about putting together the paperwork she needs to secure a job or home, but he does share a stark truth with her: “At the end of the day, nobody cares if you make it or you don’t.”
Faceless officials talk about Angel as though she isn’t in the room with them. One official, a male, casually shares Angel’s experiences of sexual abuse with his colleague. Angel stares into the distance, unblinking.
Night Comes On is shot with a distinctive female gaze that can be felt when Angel retreats into herself to create distance from past traumas, and later on when she creates moments of privacy for her little sister to wrestle with the beginnings of puberty. The brainchild of Angelica Nwandu (founder of Black media site The Shade Room) and Jordana Spiro (Netflix’s Ozark), Night Comes On is directed and co-written by the duo. Their film captures many of the realities of being a Black woman in public space.
As the story unfolds, those few moments when Angel is relaxed and free to let her guard down are enchanting to watch. Gentle lighting and soft piano music reflect a peaceful quality to Angel’s inner-life. The world slows for Angel as she rolls through the city, drifts through a club that feels more like a cathedral. The beauty of Angel’s rich inner life contrasts with the harsh sound and stark lighting of a reality that is unforgiving to those who inhabit it.
Angel collides with misogyny and racism again and again. There’s also the subtle grind of homophobia mixed in. When Angel’s release plan is being discussed around her, the possibility of living with her girlfriend is dismissed out of hand. Her ten year old sister is suggested as a more suitable support.
As a lesbian, Angel’s life is especially precarious. And as a lesbian, Angel is totally relatable. It’s impossible not to get caught up in the suspense as she tries to reach her girlfriend on the phone, the awkwardness as she tries to leave a voicemail that’s the right balance of casual and urgent, and the flicker of hope that rides on their reunion.
Yet for all the disappointments Angel faces, the movie is peppered with moments of unexpected joy. A group of Black girls sing and dance together on the bus, their delight infectious. And Tatum Marilyn Hall will steal your heart as Abby, a girl who has been forced into a wisdom beyond her years and uses her understanding of the world’s wrongs to engineer a day at the beach with her sister. As they play in the water – carefree Black girls for once – Angel’s nightmarish vendetta, Abby’s loneliness, and the distance that had grown between the sisters are all washed away.
The longer Angel spends caring for Abby, the more her resolve wavers. Abby sees the best in her big sister. As Angel sees herself through Abby’s eyes, the way she understands herself begins to shift. It is a rare delight to see redemptive love shown in the form of a dark-skinned Black girl. So it is that Angel is torn between avenging her mother’s death and beginning to build a new life for herself and her sister. That terrible tension between past and future builds until Night Comes On reaches a devastating climax.
JORDANA SPIRO’S SUNDANCE WINNER