Sometimes if you throw a bunch of clichéd little stories together, they add up to something special - a tapestry, a community of lives intertwined. And sometimes a bunch of clichéd stories add up to nothing more than a bunch of clichéd stories. "Blackout," premiering tonight at 7:30 on BET, falls somewhere in between those extremes. It's a strongly acted collection of interwoven subplots that has moments of coherence and urgency but ultimately fails to transcend its parts.
"Blackout," which also comes out on DVD next week, is about what happens in a Brooklyn neighborhood during the New York blackout of August 2003. Written and directed by Jerry LaMothe, the movie follows a dozen or so characters in East Flatbush, whose paths overlap increasingly as the rioting kicks in. Wisely, LaMothe spends lots of time meandering through these people's lives before the lights - and the music, and the fans, and the barber's tools - go out cold. He beautifully creates a calm mood of daily neighborhood life before the storm, an effective setup for what will happen when the blackout unleashes chaos.
We meet old George (Melvin Van Peebles), a building superintendent, and we meet his landlord (Saul Rubinek), who's about to evict him. We meet a proud mother, Mrs. Thompson (LaTanya Richardson-Jackson), and we meet her son, C.J. (Michael B. Jordan), who is about to go to college on a full academic scholarship. We also meet the thug - played by Jamie Hector (Marlo on "The Wire") - who might get in C.J.'s way. And we meet a few couples in romantic trouble, including Claudine (Zoe Saldana) and James (Sean Blakemore), who is still emotionally paralyzed from his experience on 9/11.
The blackout traps a few of these people together, as it unleashes violence and theft on the streets. And it triggers profound emotional shifts and eruptions among them. In the manner of Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing," the atmosphere grows increasingly heightened, and a series of momentous events occur before the lights come back on. Unfortunately, you can predict exactly where each plot will wind up; there are no surprises along the way. LaMothe does add on an ironic resonance at the end, though when we learn through a radio report that the mood in Manhattan was rather peaceful.
What makes "Blackout" worth a gander is the cast. LaMothe lets his ensemble take over a bit, and there are some wonderful acting turns on this familiar turf. Richardson gives her stock character some depth, and she provides two of the movie's deepest moments. Van Peebles, too, makes his older man into something more than the script indicates. And Susan Kelechi Watson is extraordinary as Fatima, a poet who doesn't quite know that her boyfriend is cheating on her. Her rage and sorrow provide electricity in a movie that needs all the juice it can find.