The untold truth of Lifetime’s Faith Under Fire

Lifetime’s Faith Under Fire premiered on Jan. 27, 2018, and the film quickly set the internet on, well, fire. Faith Under Fire tells the story of Antoinette Tuff, a courageous bookkeeper who stopped a school shooting by simply talking to the gunman and calming him down. Tuff, who was contemplating taking her own life at the time, sympathized with the gunman and recounted her own hardships to him, eventually leading to his change of heart and saving the lives of the people in the school that day.

The action-filled movie is a story of faith and resilience, and it’s clear why it resonated with viewers. Like all Lifetime movies, Faith Under Fire is packed with feelings, and it really tugs on the heartstrings. Whether you’ve watched Faith Under Fire once or a dozen times, you’ll appreciate this behind-the-scenes look at the popular Lifetime film. And if you haven’t seen it yet, what are you waiting for?

Lifetime's Faith Under Fire is based on a true story

The story told in Lifetime’s Faith Under Fire is hard to believe, but it’s a true one. While many school shootings end in tragedy, the fact that there were no casualties on the fateful day told in the TV movie is incredible. On Aug. 20, 2013, Antoinette Tuff really did talk gunman Michael Hill out of carrying out his plan to open fire on the school where she was working, Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy in Decatur, Ga., while on the line with 911.

“I was screaming and terrified on the inside,” Tuff told NPR about the incident. “I didn’t even know I was calm until everybody kept saying that. And so what I did is I went back to listen to the 911 tape to see exactly what I was saying and how calm I was. And to be honest with you, I didn’t even recognize my own voice.” She continued, “And so I knew at that moment that it was God that guided me through that day.”

Lifetime's Faith Under Fire is based on a memoir about the incident

One of the major sources used to write the screenplay for Lifetime’s Faith Under Fire was Antoinette Tuff’s memoir, Prepared for a Purpose: The Inspiring True Story of How One Woman Saved an Atlanta School Under Siege. The book was co-written with Alex Tresniowski and published in January 2014, five months after the terrifying event at Georgia’s McNair Discovery Learning Academy. The book provides a harrowing account of the near shooting, and also gives readers a glimpse into what was going on in Tuff’s mind on that fateful day. “I cannot believe I even got the opportunity to write a book, but once I did I knew just what story I wanted to tell — not only the story of what happened at McNair, but also everything that came before it,” Tuff wrote in an article for HuffPost.

Drawing so heavily from Tuff’s own account of the incident helped make Faith Under Fire not just compelling and realistic, but also quite authentic to what really happened on that day that could have ended so tragically.

Lifetime's Faith Under Fire premiered as the no. 1 cable movie of the year

Millions of people tuned in to watch Lifetime’s Faith Under Fire when it debuted in 2018. According to a Lifetime press release (via TV Week), the film proved to be one of Lifetime’s most popular movies, debuting as the top-rated original cable movie of the year among adults aged 25 to 54, adults aged 18 to 49, and women aged 18 to 49. Faith Under Fire and the special that aired after it, Biography Presents: The Antoinette Tuff Story, reached more than 8 million viewers in their first few days on air.

But Faith Under Fire didn’t just reach millions of viewers. It also became something of a social media sensation. Nielsen Social Content Ratings showed that it was ranked first in social interactions for  new prime time cable shows on January 27, not counting sports, news, and TV specials (via TV Week). The film was so popular that many took to Twitter, and got Faith Under Fire trending in the United States.

Toni Braxton said Lifetime's Faith Under Fire was her most challenging project

Toni Braxton starred as Antoinette Tuff in Lifetime’s Faith Under Fire. The Grammy-winning singer had a few acting parts under her belt by the time the movie filmed, but Faith Under Fire would push her to her limits as an actress. In fact, Braxton said that the role of Antoinette Tuff was one of the most challenging roles she has ever taken on. “It was a deliciously chewy role,” she told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I came in prepared. I had all my lines ready. Then I arrived and they had 50 pages of rewrites!”

At a screening of the film in New York City (via The Christian Post), Braxton admitted that she was a bit nervous to take on the part. “I was a little scared to do it because it was a heavy role, I’m not going to lie,” said the Faith Under Fire star. “But I talked to everyone who said, ‘Toni you’ve got to do it. You got to be brave. If [Antoinette Tuff] can do it, you can do it.'”

Toni Braxton gained weight to play Antoinette Tuff in Lifetime's Faith Under Fire

Portraying Antoinette Tuff presented more than just a psychological and emotional challenge for Toni Braxton. The singer and actress also had to undergo a physical transformation in order to play Tuff. Wearing little makeup and dreadlocks helped make Braxton look less like herself and more like the real-life woman she was to portray, but Braxton wasn’t going to do things halfway. She also gained weight for the role, putting on 17 pounds to complete the transformation. 

Braxton explained that she wanted to truly commit to Lifetime’s Faith Under Fire and to tell a compelling story. “I submerged myself into it,” she told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I wanted to make sure people didn’t see Toni Braxton the singer. The aesthetics were important.”

Braxton certainly achieved her goal. Between her incredible performance and her completely different look, singing superstar Braxton is virtually unrecognizable in the movie. Her commitment to the role was a large part about what makes the film such an incredible viewing experience.

Antoinette Tuff coached Toni Braxton on how to portray her in Lifetime's Faith Under Fire

While playing Antoinette Tuff was a challenge for Toni Braxton, she fortunately had a coach to help her tackle the challenging role: Antoinette Tuff herself. “Once I said yes to the movie, I couldn’t wait to meet her,” the “Un-Break My Heart” singer told TV Insider. “I called for months, but I had the wrong number! I finally met her the day before shooting; I was like a sponge trying to absorb everything about her mannerisms.”

Braxton added that Tuff stayed around on the set of Lifetime’s Faith Under Fire for a few days and explained to Braxton what that fateful day at Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy in Decatur, Ga. was like for her. Tuff helped Braxton tap deeper into the role and alleviated some of Braxton’s concerns about playing such a difficult part. “My thought was, ‘I don’t want to mess this up,'” said Braxton. “‘How am I going to play this courageous woman in front of her?’ She gave me some insight into how she was feeling that day — she actually reenacted for me a good seven minutes of what happened.”

Antoinette Tuff's son probably didn't like how he was portrayed in Lifetime's Faith Under Fire

While Lifetime’s Faith Under Fire was a major hit, not everyone was probably too happy with the film. Derrick Tuff, Antoinette Tuff’s son, was likely unhappy with how he was portrayed in the movie, as he didn’t like how he was presented in his mother’s memoir, Prepared for a Purpose, the book on which Faith Under Fire was based. Derrick, who was born premature, has Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, a rare inherited disorder that affects nerves in the hands, arms, feet, and legs. Derrick also has retinopathy of prematurity, which affects his vision. He told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that, in spite of this, his mother raised him to live life to the fullest and not let his disability hold him back. That’s why he was hurt by her portrayal of him in her book. “She was all about people not treating me sympathetically,” said Derrick. “She didn’t view me as disabled, she viewed me as normal.”

He added, “This deeply saddens me because the image of independence I built was being torn down and I couldn’t do anything to prevent it.”

One of Lifetime's Faith Under Fire producers runs a megachurch

Lifetime’s Faith Under Fire had some big-name producers, including Toni Braxton and megachurch leader T.D. Jakes, who founded the The Potter’s House, which consists of over 30,000 members. Jakes has a personal connection with Braxton and is the one who approached her about taking on the role of Antoinette Tuff. It was his faith in Braxton that made her agree to accept the part. “Coming from the Church with a religious background being a preacher’s kid, I identified with it immediately,” she told The Christian Post. “When Bishop Jakes wanted me to do the role I was flattered and excited. Bishop Jakes is like our uncle. He gets our family together when we’re out of shape, he smacks us back together.”

Braxton added that she appreciated that her pastor, Jakes, helped keep the theme of faith strong throughout the film. “For me, my faith is important, so I had to make sure that I sat under somebody who I knew would come back and take the word back out to be able to change lives,” she said. “It’s a wonderful feeling to be able to have Bishop Jakes.”

The real-life heroine of Lifetime's Faith Under Fire was personally thanked by President Barack Obama

Antoinette Tuff is truly a hero. She risked her life to talk down the gunman at Georgia’s Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy, saving many lives. Her story captivated the nation and even caught the attention of then-President Barack Obama. Obama was so impressed by Tuff’s heroism that he called her after the incident. According to White House pool reports (via Ebony), Obama personally wanted “to thank her for the courage she displayed while talking to a gunman who entered the school where she works…” 

The former president also appeared on the news to talk about Tuff’s story. “She was remarkable,” he said on CNN, adding“Here’s somebody who’s not just … cool under pressure, but also had enough heart that somehow she could convince somebody that was really troubled that she cared about him.”

Obama added that she made him and his wife, Michelle, proud. Given their praise of Tuff, we wonder if the Obamas watched Lifetime’s Faith Under Fire.

The real-life protagonist of Lifetime's Faith Under Fire is now a motivational speaker

The near-shooting at Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy, which was depicted in Lifetime’s Faith Under Fire, changed Antoinette Tuff’s life and marked a turning point for her career. After the incident and after the recognition she received, Tuff decided to become a motivational speaker. According to her website, Tuff has three main speaking topics: “Conversation in the Crosshairs: Workplace and School Violence,” “How to Disarm Your Toughest Customers and Employees,” and “PREPARED for a PURPOSE: School Under Siege.” 

Tuff also started a nonprofit organization to give back to the community. Formed just weeks after her astonishing act of courage in 2013, Kids on the Move for Success, Inc. was developed to “help underprivileged children all over the world see a new beginning and to know they too can push pass their life circumstances and be prepared for a purpose in life.” Kids on the Move for Success mentors children and also awards scholarships.

Lifetime's Faith Under Fire won a Christopher Award

While Lifetime’s Faith Under Fire was very popular with viewers, it didn’t perform as well as you might think on the awards circuit. The film did, however, receive one major award: the Christopher Award. The Christophers is a nonprofit organization that, according to their mission statement, “encourage[s] people of all ages, and from all walks of life, to use their God-given talents to make a positive difference in the world.” Faith Under Fire was presented with a Christopher Award in May 2019 for demonstrating “the highest values of the human spirit.”

Faith Under Fire director Vondie Curtis-Hall spoke to Crux about winning the award. “I think that [The Christophers’] mission statement is so important in these times,” he said. “We are living in such turmoil. The human condition is such that we create chaos around us somehow, and we are always seeking some higher angels in ourselves, wherever that can be found or sought. To honor what is beautiful.”

What Antoinette Tuff hopes people learn from Lifetime's Faith Under Fire

Antoinette Tuff demonstrated a lot of courage on the day of the would-be school shooting at Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy in Decatur, Ga. on Aug. 20, 2013. In telling her story, she hopes that other people can learn from her experiences and grow more rooted in their own faith. In an interview with NPR, the real-life heroine of Lifetime’s Faith Under Fire said that she wants those who hear her story to be kind to one another. “Make sure that no matter what you’re going through, remember that everybody is human,” she said. “And … make sure that you prepare yourself for a purpose. And when God calls your number, make sure that your heart is open to receive what directions he [gives] you.”

According to Tuff, everyone has a purpose and this is something that they should remember as they go about their day. “All of us have a purpose in our life,” she said. “And so God prepares us all for one.”

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