Initially Published Here
Writer/director Tanya Hamilton’s remarkably assured first feature checks in at a brisk 88 minutes, but it still has a contemplative quality sadly missing from most contemporary cinema, independent or otherwise: It trusts the audience to make connections rather than spelling everything out in bold capital letters, and it never loses track of the personal issues that inform our political beliefs.
The story, which takes place in 1976, concerns Marcus (Anthony Mackie of Hurt Locker fame), an ex-Black Panther who returns to his Philadelphia neighborhood after a mysterious four year absence upon news of his father’s death. He longs to reconnect with Patricia (Kerry Washington), the wife of a good friend and fellow Panther who was killed by the police. Many neighbors, including his former comrades, suspect that Marcus is responsible for the husband’s death by informing the police of his whereabouts. Marcus’ feelings for Patricia are well known by all, Patricia included. She struggles to maintain ties to her old life while taking small steps to move her and her family forward.
Hamilton does a superb job at juggling several stories. Along with Marcus and Patricia, there is Patricia’s cousin Jimmy (Amari Cheatom) whose rage and anger at the police finds misguided focus in Black Panther lore. Then there are Dwayne and David (played by Jamie Hector and Wendell Pierce, both alums of HBO’s The Wire). Two sides of the same coin, Dwayne wants Marcus to pay for his supposed betrayal of the Panther cause while David is a cop willing to do anything to get Marcus to implicate his old friends. The story slowly and quietly ratchets up the stakes for all these characters such that the film’s inevitable moments of violence and revelation feel hard-won and honest.
Night Catches Us is blessedly free of the trappings we’ve come to expect from a film set in the ‘70s -- the clothes aren’t outlandish (in fact, Marcus’ collection of velour shirts struck me as perfectly of the time without once calling attention to themselves) and the soundtrack is free of the Top 40 cheese typically slathered over films set during the period. There are some relatively obscure soul and R&B songs as well as a score by The Roots which seamlessly blends with the tunes of the era. The film never feels like an agitprop piece despite its subject matter and the use of occasional archival footage and animation.
It also features some surprisingly lyrical imagery. A long shot of Jimmy target shooting in an abandoned lot tells us everything we need to know by allowing us to see his whole body in relation to his environment; how his arm shakes as he raises the gun, how hollow and tiny the bullets sound as they disappear into the debris. Towards the end of the film, the police are looking for a suspect in the woods and everything is of a piece -- the light at dusk filled with fireflies, the soft grass, the methodical movement of the cops through the trees. It’s as perfect a sequence as I’ve seen in a film this year. Let’s hope the film gets the attention it deserves. It is a small, exquisitely drawn picture of a time and a place that never feels less than true.