Black History Month viewing: 'Night Catches Us'

Stirring, sensual film is a Molotov cocktail waiting to be lit

  • A scene from "Night Catches Us."
A scene from "Night Catches Us." (Handout photo )
February 03, 2011|By Michael Sragow, Baltimore Sun

"Night Catches Us," Tanya Hamilton's complex treatment of the Black Panther legacy, is perfect viewing for Black History Month.

Just released on a Magnolia DVD, it is an emotion-charged memory play and a film noir in more ways than one. It contains one human time bomb — a trigger-happy street kid with delusions of political glory — and several characters carrying scars from a fatal police-Panther showdown. It's a personal work of art, not a docudrama. It's a stirring debut for Hamilton as a keen, intuitive writer-director.

Hamilton and her movie packed the house at MICA's Brown Center last May for the Maryland Film Festival. Later, at the festival's Tent Village, she and other moviemakers, in a panel discussion that I moderated, paid tribute to directors who inspired them.

Her movie loves were disarmingly eclectic — they included abstract experimental filmmaker Maya Deren, cinematographer-turned-director Nicolas Roeg ("Walkabout") and the contemporary political filmmaker Raoul Peck ("Lumumba"). Her choices made perfect cinematic sense. "Night Catches Us" is the work of a big-screen storyteller both socially engaged and committed to her own artistic vision.

Nothing about this brilliantly acted debut feature is conventional, including its time and place: 1976 Philadelphia. Jimmy Carter can be heard over the radio promising to "give government back to the people."

"All Power to the People" was the Black Panthers' slogan in the '60s. Hamilton's characters can't forget it. They include Marcus (Anthony Mackie), a onetime Panther who drifts back to his old neighborhood after his father's death, and former friend and comrade Patricia (Kerry Washington), now an idealistic defense attorney. The pivotal character is seen only in photographs: Neil, Patricia's Panther husband, killed by federal agents in a gunbattle.

Washington and Mackie share the bone-deep rapport that makes an audience feel that Marcus and Patricia are meant for each other. Patricia has her hands full with an inquisitive young daughter, Iris (Jamara Griffin), and a volatile cousin, Jimmy (Amari Cheatom), who confuses adolescent acting out with political confrontation. Marcus must face some ex-Panthers' suspicions that he betrayed Neil to the police. Add a Machiavellian police detective (Wendell Pierce), and you have a Molotov cocktail just waiting to be lit.

The film is sensual and alive. It makes you intuit the connections between characters. Hamilton is a masterly choreographer when she plots out the antagonism of seasoned Marcus and hothead Jimmy, or the growing bond between Marcus and Iris, who's never known fatherly love. There's sensory punch to scenes as small as Jimmy gathering used cans for cash. Hamilton's overall theme is the same as William Faulkner's: "The past is never dead. It's not even past." "Night Catches Us" uses elements of whodunits that force us to ask — when it comes to race in urban America — "What just happened?"

—Michael Sragow

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