Night Catches Us: A Review

A friend and I started 2011 by viewing one of the few screenings of Night Catches Us in New York. As we walked and talked, our conversation shifted from the film to our families and of how our generation — first-generation integrationist, I like to say — has had to come to terms with truths that our parents, for better or for worse, felt they had to conceal. Truths about the violence of racism and sexism, and the strategies they forged in order to transform society into a better place for their children. How challenging it must have been for my parents, who had come of age during segregation, to watch my brother and I attend school with white kids. It’s not uncommon for parents to try to shield their children from danger; the trick is protecting them without inadvertently imbuing them with paranoia in the process. Perhaps my parents felt the same way about racism and therefore said so little about it. Or maybe, as Patricia in Night Catches Us points out, it was just too painful to go there.

With remarkably gentle strokes, director Tanya Hamilton evokes a community of activists who dared to imagine a radically different way of living in the United States and who paid dearly for their idealism. Years after a tragic shooting tore apart a core group of Black Panthers in a Philadelphia neighborhood, Marcus (Anthony Mackie) returns home to bury his father, but instead finds himself confronted with — as Patricia’s precocious daughter Iris, expertly played by Jamara Griffin, puts it — ‘ghosts all around’. Patricia (Kerry Washington), formerly a Panther, is now a practicing lawyer and busies herself suppressing her memories of the past by dishing out breakfast to the neighborhood kids and keeping her cousin Jimmy (Amari Cheatom) out of jail. Jimmy meanwhile scrapes by collecting aluminum cans for a handful of dollars at a time, all the while clinging to fantasies of Black Power that lead him closer to danger. And Do-Right (Jamie Hector) still harbors an urge to avenge the death of his closest friend and comrade, which he has never stopped holding Marcus responsible for. The canvas is broad, and Hamilton takes her time introducing us to each character, applying one delicate layer after the next. As a result she achieves an atmosphere that is potent and rich, but never glaring; it is up to us, the viewer, to apply our knowledge, our memories and our emotions to what we are seeing. This is perhaps the most difficult trick to pull off in writing and directing a film about politically charged material, and indeed the legacy of the Black Panthers is anything but subtle territory. But Hamilton’s focus is not on placing her subject on a pedestal — quite the opposite. Instead, she treats us to truth: people who are struggling with painful pasts, bewildered by their own desires, and uncertain of how to hold on to their beliefs in spite of their fears. The result is a film that invites us to lift the curtain of iconography surrounding the Black Panthers with the promise of introducing us to the people behind it — only then to surprise us by showing us ourselves.

The film is not without its flaws. The pace is at times uneven, and Hamilton’s writing is not always as surefooted as her direction. The script rarely does more than get the job done, and it is up to the cast to keep the story alive with surprise and emotion. Fortunately, this ensemble of stars does all this and more, falling easily into step with Hamilton’s poise and grace as a director.

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