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“Night Catches Us” believes. It’s a small independent film that believes you can mix the personal and the political to potent effect. It believes the recent past contains intense and involving stories. And it believes most of all in the power still present in traditional, character-driven drama.
Starring the potent combination of Anthony Mackie and Kerry Washington, “Night Catches Us” manages to be both pertinent and dramatically persuasive. Made like it means something (and it does) by first-time writer-director Tanya Hamilton, it demonstrates that social relevance and emotional connection can be compelling fellow travelers.
Set in a particular time and place, Philadelphia in 1976, “Night Catches Us” places a gripping personal story against the backdrop of the declining years of the Black Power movement, and it doesn’t hesitate to investigate the ambivalent legacy of that still controversial political moment.
As conceived of by Hamilton, who is originally from Jamaica and had to push for nearly a decade to get this film made, “Night Catches Us” both capitalizes on a neglected time frame and demonstrates how few opportunities stars of color have to show us everything they can do.
It’s not that Mackie ( “The Hurt Locker,” “Half Nelson”) and Washington (“Ray,” “Mother and Child”) haven’t had strong material. But, frankly, well-written dramas that allow African American actors this kind of richness of character development, the ability to play a full and complex spectrum of emotions, are rare indeed and especially welcome.
These actors and the rest of the almost exlusively African American cast (including “The Wire” veterans Jamie Hector and Wendell Pierce) enrich the film’s personal theme. “Night Catches Us,” as its title hints, focuses on the almost unbearable weight of the past and the power it can have to overshadow and suffocate the present with the taint of secrets inside of secrets, wheels inside of wheels.
When we first meet Marcus Washington, we don’t know what his secrets are, but we can sense he has them. As played by Mackie with presence and skill to burn, Marcus is a lean, wary, troubled individual, a disenchanted former Black Panther who is coming back to his old neighborhood in Philadelphia for his father’s funeral.
No one has heard from Marcus for years, and few people are happy to see him return. His Muslim minister brother drips contempt, and Dwayne “DoRight” Miller (Hector), the man who now heads what’s left of the Panthers, tells him no one has forgotten what he did in the past — actions, gradually explained, that cause the word “snitch” to get thrown around.
More positive, though still ambivalent, is former radical colleague and old friend Patty (Washington). Now a socially active lawyer who prefers to be called Patricia, she too is disconcerted at the reappearance of this man who reawakens thoughts of the past as well as more personal feelings, and Washington is especially effective at conveying the intricacy of her reactions.
Happiest to see Marcus is Patty’s young daughter Iris (Jamara Griffin), who values his presence because he was a close friend of her dead father, Neal, a fellow radical.
Too young to remember the Panthers in their prime but burning with rage at the Man is Jimmy (Amari Cheatom), a teenager who lives on the money he makes collecting tin cans around the neighborhood. His adversarial attitude strikes Marcus as dangerous and juvenile, and their interaction adds sharp flavor to this mix, as does Marcus’ relationship with a local cop (Pierce) who remembers him from the old days.
As we find out more about Marcus’ past and see how his actions continue to reverberate, “Night Catches Us” displays melodramatic elements, but they never detract from our involvement with the personalities explored and the issues raised. Evocative music by the Roots is a welcome addition to the mix.
“Night Catches Us” is produced through SimonSays Entertainment, a new company whose motto is “Tell every story.” Hamilton’s narrative is a perfect example of the kind of story that has not been told before, and we are all the richer for having experienced it.
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.
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