Night Catches Us

Dir: Tanya Hamilton, 2010. Starring: Anthony Mackie, Kerry Washington, Wendell Pierce. Black Cinema / Drama.
Night Catches Us

The low-budget period piece, Night Catches Us, is a rare kind of film these days - a complex, quiet, adult drama. More rare it’s about black people, and though it’s intense, the intensity comes from the characters' personal torment, not on-screen violence. In a perfect world Night Catches Us would catapult its first time feature director, Tanya Hamilton, as a major new relevant voice in film, but unfortunately there are no robots or superheroes in this story. The two lead performances by Anthony Mackie and Kerry Washington reaffirm their standing as two of the most reliable actors of their generation.

What happened to the “Movement” and how does that generation of black revolutionaries learn to live in a world after the revolution has fizzled out? The film slowly opens up and unfolds. It’s 1976, after years of being in exile as a snitch, ex-Black Panther Marcus Washington (Mackie) returns to his Philadelphia neighborhood to confront his past. The word on the street was that he got his best friend killed by the cops, which makes him an enemy to the folks in the hood, except that friend’s ex-wife Patricia Wilson (Washington). Also once a radical, she’s now a respectable lawyer raising a daughter as a single mother. She and Marcus seem to have something between them. Is that why her husband was killed? Or are they both just haunted by the death of a man and the loss of a way of life? What's left to fight for or stand for? These are two people lost in the past desperate to find a future. Though they do come together, there are too many ghosts between them to let them really fall in love, which in an Ibsen-like twist is what creates their bond.

Facts, thoughts and character motivations are rarely given to us in dialogue, instead plot is moved by the small gestures of actors. The sparse script is dense on emotion but told with the utmost minimalism. The film clocks in at about ninety minutes, but feels shorter. It’s completely carried by its excellent ensemble of actors (including Wendell Pierce, Bunk Moreland of TV’s The Wire), but the two lead performances by Mackie and Washington are especially riveting as they play their roles with such subtle and gentle grace. Night Catches Us finally gives Mackie (who co-starred in The Hurt Locker and played Tupac Shakur in Notorious) and Washington (she was the wife of two Oscar winners in both Ray and The Last King Of Scotland) the roles to match the depth of their skills. In a perfect world they would have received lots of awards consideration and would both be on Hollywood’s A-List.

Maybe more maturely than any previous film, Night Catches Us seems to take on the romantic myth of '60s radicalism, but where half of the yuppies in The Big Chill are lost without their radical-chic, Marcus and Patricia are desperate to escape from it. Also similarly to The Big Chill, the characters in Night Catches Us are haunted by the memory of a character who looms over the film but is never shown, not even in flashbacks, Patricia's dead ex-husband, who seems to be patterned on real life Black Panther Fred Hampton. Director Hamilton never seems to fall under the spell of the memory of the Panther movement or appears to want to glorify the '60s dream. Although she does employ archive footage to show the Panthers in their glory days, the footage is presented as snippets of quiet memory, not hit-you-over-the-head newsreel style. By the mid-'70s, the Panthers here are closer to an over-the-hill gang groping at meaning, boys playing at still being outlaws, while Patricia and others are stuck carrying the wounds they inflicted. Instead of getting re-tangled in the past, Hamilton’s characters wisely choose to walk away, maybe live to fight another day or simply grow up.

Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Oct 24, 2011 4:53pm
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