Collage of photos from the film NIGHT CATCHES US

Night Catches Us (2010, Simon Says / Gigantic)
1h, 28mins
Writer & Director: Tanya Hamilton
Starring: Anthony Mackie, Kerry Washington, Wendell Pierce, Jamie Hector

Reviewed by Jasmin S. Greene

Exposure to artworks exploring the black power movement with vivid imagery of black panthers is not completely uncommon. Many have become familiar with free breakfast programs, activism, COINTELPRO, and slayings of Bobby Hutton, Fred Hampton, and other party members. Still, most stories only tell of the rise and then tragic fall of the Black Panther Party and its people. Debut writer/director Tanya Hamilton raises the question of what happened afterwards.

After several years of mysterious absence, Marcus (Anthony Mackie) returns to his old neighborhood in Philadelphia to bury his father. What’s revealed, though, is that the neighborhood where Marcus was once a respected member of the Black Panthers isn’t welcoming him home with any fanfare. In the midst of taking heat over his troubled past, he is able to reignite his relationship with his old friend, and panther-turned-lawyer, Patricia (Kerry Washington). As he re-acclimates to his community, he is forced to reexamine his past, which includes coming face to face with former comrades who blame him for the execution of one of the party leaders.

As long subdued passion for Patricia intensifies as Marcus is once again forced to choose between love and the truth. We learn later that he once made what might be a difficult decision to others, but an act of love for him when he took the blame for giving information to police, information which aided in the assassination of the party leader. Meanwhile, Patricia has kept a myriad of dark secrets from her own daughter, and now battles those skeletons—unable to leave a neighborhood that filled her heart with sorrow. Patricia also is caught in a balancing act of keeping the secret, protecting her daughter, and opening her home to help her neighbors. This nurturing relationship towards community members seems more rooted in guilt, especially once her secret is revealed.

The film explores sorrow, hope, and longing with poignant imagery and messages, seeming like more of a foreign film than its American roots might suggest. Instead of sensational displays of violence—fight scenes and explosions—here violence is more implied than actually shown. Convincing performances from Washington and Mackie help to draw in viewers, and the mixture of animation and archival footage produced by the Black Panther Party helps to make this film unique, interesting, and seemingly realistic.

Anthony Mackie and Kerry Washington illuminate Hamilton’s beautiful, character-driven writing with fluidity and precision. They often speak of home, the past, and moving on in simple yet memorable dialogues. When Patricia tells Marcus “If you want to have a say in how things go around here, you have to stay,” one can sense that Marcus is not the only man in her life that she loved who left her but another in a string of such men. Although simple, these and other exchanges speak volumes when Mackie and Washington bring the words to life.

As community members deal with their own demons, both new and old, Marcus and Patricia embark on their journey to figure out what happens next. Does Marcus still love Patricia enough to hide a secret from the community that could destroy her? Has enough time passed for Marcus’ ex-comrades to move on or will he continue to be unwelcome in the very community he once helped? Will Patricia have enough courage to leave her past behind or will she continue to feel like she must be fixated in the community, helping those who don’t even want her?

The film culminates with the type of tragedy and heartbreak that leaves viewers only able to shake their heads and mumble “damn”—nonetheless full and sated with the experience. The most gripping endings are those that one doesn’t plan for and yet they manage to come so close to common, every day life. This film’s strength is its realism. Tanya Hamilton chose not to fill the film with trite and expected situations and resolution, but with the bittersweet movements of life. Hamilton has scored with this directorial debut, entering the film industry with a strong message: She is here to stay. Get familiar.

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JASMIN S. GREENE is a freelance script editor for an independent film company in New York City. She recently finished writing her first feature length film. With background interests in art culture and society, after earning her MA from UCLA in 2008 she published her first book, Beyond Money, Cars, and Women: Examining Black Masculinity in Hip Hop Culture (Cambridge Scholars Press). Greene continues to pursue her passion for writing, focusing on socially-driven concepts in her works. A New Jersey native, she has lived in Virginia, California, Spain, Costa Rica, London and many places between. She now splits her time between the Garden State and Washington, D.C. when she isn’t exploring the world abroad.