Moving Forward: Kerry Washington plays Patricia, a ’70s civil-rights lawyer trying to put her former radicalism to rest in order to raise her daughter in peace. Complications arise when Marcus, the man many believe caused her husband’s death, reappears.
A fresh breeze from an unexpected direction, Night Catches Us surveys some of the wreckage left by early-’70s experiments in “revolutionary” violence. This is not a new theme in European cinema, but writer-director Tanya Hamilton’s feature debut is set in north Philadelphia. The movie evokes its time and place so potently that it almost doesn’t matter that Hamilton’s script proves unequal to her vision.
The film opens with archival footage of the Black Panthers, then skips a few years forward, to 1976. Presidential contender Jimmy Carter’s voice is heard as kids play in the street near somewhat shabby but neatly kept houses. This is the African-American neighborhood where Patricia (Kerry Washington) is trying to balance domestic tranquility with her former radicalism. She’s a civil-rights lawyer now, with 10-year-old daughter Iris (Jamara Griffin) to raise.
Meanwhile, junk collector Jimmy (Amari Cheatom) appears destined for a serious confrontation with a racist local cop. Slow-witted and quick to anger, Jimmy seems like the kind of guy who’d be a danger primarily to himself if he ever got his hands on a gun. Then he does, and the scene where he practices shooting — looking far from powerful despite his new firepower — is one of the film’s most haunting.
Much as in a classic Western, everything changes when a man rides into town. Marcus (Anthony Mackie) is a former Black Panther who’s not very welcome in his old haunts; called home for his father’s funeral after four years away, he’s by his brother Bostic, who’s become a Muslim. (Bostic is played by Tariq Trotter of the Roots, the Philly hip-hop group that provided the film’s first-rate score.)
At first, it’s not clear how these characters fit together. Despite the precise period detail, the movie’s first 15 minutes seem aimless. But then we begin to understand the connections. Patricia and Jimmy are cousins; Marcus and Patricia have a long-simmering erotic attraction.
Anthony Mackie stars as Marcus, a former Black Panther who returns home for a funeral knowing that both friends and family think of him as a traitor.
Also, Marcus was a cohort of Neil, Patricia’s late husband and Iris’ father. An alleged murderer, Neil was gunned down by police, and is that Marcus was the one who told the cops where to find him. The black Cadillac that Marcus just inherited from his father is soon emblazoned with the word “snitch.”
Whatever Marcus did, he now sees the fury of his Black Panther days as destructive. His cool contrasts the simmering rage carried by both Jimmy and the still-radical Dwayne (Jamie Hector), leader of the men who consider Marcus a traitor. Yet Marcus is unprepared, emotionally and ideologically, to emulate the movie’s establishment-friendly African Americans: a lawyer who’s been dating Patricia and a policeman who tries to manipulate Marcus.
As a writer, Hamilton sometimes relies on stock situations and predictable payoffs. The movie includes a frantic make-out scene that’s as goofy as the one in Morning Glory, and the solution to the central mystery — who really did snitch on Neil? — turns out not to be especially interesting.
Fortunately for the director, her two leads flesh out their sometimes sketchily drawn characters. Mackie, indelible in The Hurt Locker and Half Nelson, makes Marcus a three-dimensional hero, courageous but understandably cautious. Washington, whose triumphs include The Last King of Scotland, shows how Patricia tempers with motherly pragmatism.
The performances are deepened by being fixed in locations that Hamilton clearly knows well. Even when its story falters, Night Catches Us conjures a world that feels fully real.