Toni Braxton in Lifetime film about Decatur school heroine Antoinette Tuff

Credit: Rodney Ho

Credit: Rodney Ho

Posted on Wednesday, January 24, 2018 by RODNEY HO/ on his AJC Radio & TV Talk blog

Some people in the face of danger fall apart. They cry. They grovel. They scurry. They hide.

When faced with a school shooter clutching an AK-47 at Decatur's Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy one late summer morning in 2013, Antoinette Tuff did none of those things.

Instead, channeling her faith in God, she talked down Michael Hill, convincing him to surrender himself to the authorities with no fatalities, protecting a school of 880 students and faculty.

That incredible story is chronicled in Lifetime's Saturday night film "Faith Under Fire" with legendary R&B singer and occasional actress Toni Braxton playing the tough-as-nails Tuff. Dallas pastor T.D. Jakes had a hand in executive producing the movie.

Source material was plentiful. There were news accounts, interviews with Tuff, her autobiography and gripping 911 tapes. Unbeknownst to the shooter, she stayed on the line with 911 while spilling her guts about her own life, which included a painful divorce and a near suicide attempt on her own part. Her empathy for the mentally ill Hill, with some Scripture thrown in, helped keep everyone safe.

Related: What happened to the Georgia school gunman

"The shooter needed love, not to mention he was off his meds," said Derrick Williams, an executive producer who has also worked on films such as "Sparkle" and "Miracles From Heaven." "Through her loving him in that moment, that's what turned things around."

School shootings are sadly common place nowadays in the United States but in this case, "it gave us a happy ending we needed."

Braxton, who has worked with Lifetime before on a couple of other films including her biopic, said this was by far her most challenging role she has played to date. "It was a deliciously chewy role," she said. "I came in prepared. I had all my lines ready. Then I arrived and they had 50 pages of rewrites!"

Tuff, at a screening of the film at the Rich Auditorium at the Woodruff Arts Center last Saturday, said she was thrilled to "have a hometown hero to portray me. If you wanted someone to play you, she's the perfect example!"

Braxton met Tuff on set and tried her best to embody Tuff's steadfastness, her calm demeanor. Williams said he told Braxton: "Get ready. Your acting career is just about to take off."

"She was really able to capture those emotional moments, the sad moments, the humorous ones," Williams said.

Braxton gained 17 pounds, wore minimal makeup and donned dreads so she was barely recognizable as the singer known for 1990s classics such as "Un-Break My Heart" and "Breathe Again."

"I submerged myself into it," she said. "I wanted to make sure people didn't see Toni Braxton the singer. The aesthetics were important."

Braxton spent most of the film alone with actor Trevor Morgan ("The Sixth Sense"), who instilled Hill with initial menace and intensity that over time transformed into sadness and vulnerability. "He is such a seasoned actor," she said. "He taught me so much."

For Tuff, being on set "gave me chills. You see your life unfold and it takes you back to the moment." She said the 2013 near-death experience led her to start a nonprofit, Kids on the Move for Success, which provides scholarships to kids in need and mentors children in that very same school.

The film was shot last summer in Pittsburgh because it was easier for them to find film crew members there than Atlanta. But Braxton, citing a "My Cousin Vinny" line, said the film still captured Atlanta "dead-on balls accurate."


"Faith Under Fire," 8 p.m. Saturday, Lifetime