Movie Review: Night Catches Us

Published by Clay Cane on Monday, August 2, 2010 at 8:30 am.

Summary: Based in 1976 Philadelphia, former Black Panthers reconnect. Haunted by their pasts and the residuals of a community picking up the scraps of life after the Panthers, they are forced to face their present and their future.

Review: Directed by Jamaican-born Tanya Hamilton and featured at the New York International Latino Film Festival, Night Catches Us is exactly what independent filmmaking should be. No lofty special effects, no extreme violence, or gratuitous sex.  A movie that is not agenda-driven; it is about the dialogue and acting, but will still make the viewer think.

Marcus (Anthony Mackie) is accused of snitching on one of his Panther members who ends up dead. Patricia (Kerry Washington) is the widow of the slain Panther who is struggling with ghosts of the past, which is in turn deeply affecting her daughter Iris, played by an unforgettable Jamara Griffin.

In her directorial debut, Hamilton skillfully captures a transitional time in Philadelphia. Following the Black Panther movement, it is a community is in fear, not trusting the cops but not trusting the people in the neighborhood either. Using archival footage of the Black Panthers and unique imagery, Hamilton unfolds a unique story without making it a history lesson. This film is about the characters’ own transitions, not the politics.

Night Catches Us is a slow burn, smoldering through the first half. At times a bit lagging, it’s just good ol’ fashion character building, an art form that is lost in the junk food films of today.  A movie standing alone just on the script demands compelling acting, and Julliard-trained Anthony Mackie doesn’t let the audience down. Then, there is an Afro-wearing Kerry Washington in a motherly role, which we rarely see, smoothly gracing the screen.

This might be Hamilton first’s film, but this was not a movie for amateurs. Hamilton clearly took her time and did research. A Columbia University grad, she made a film that is leagues ahead of that of a typical first-time filmmaker — smartly written, beautifully photographed but with a raw edge. Plus, a booming soundtrack from The Roots helps finalize a solid film from a filmmaker with a bright future.

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