After watching writer/director Tanya Hamilton's "Night Catches Us" for the second time, I had to go and double check that it really is her feature film directing debut. It indeed is, and as such, its a bold and often powerful vision from an exciting new voice in the world of movies.
And it certainly doesn't hurt that in Anthony Mackie and Kerry Washington she has two of the best young actors - black, white or anything else - working in movies today to tell at once a both intimate and ambitious story about the Black Panther movement and, more importantly, how its successes and failures impacted the individuals left in the wake of its peak.
Hamilton's movie opens with the pledge of allegiance read over images from the black power movement and ending with a question mark. Though it lacks subtlety, as her story does at points throughout, its an effective way to introduce a movie that asks big questions about the movement's effectiveness.
After that we find Anthony Mackie's Marcus Washington returning to Philadelphia in 1976 for the funeral of his father. The prodigal son gets a less than warm welcome from his brother Bostic (Tariq Trotter), who has joined the Nation of Islam, and this is the first sign among many that for Marcus, it's very hard to go home again.
From the outset of "Night Catches Us", we get a strong, effective and most importantly natural sense of time and place, accomplished not with the cartoonish attire that mars far too many portrayals of the era, but instead with the overall mood (or perhaps what Jimmy Carter famously called malaise), and with a big assist from the Roots (do they ever stop working?) in providing a funky soundtrack that pulses throughout the movie. And it helps that, having visited Philadelphia myself last year, I can report that some of the neighborhoods there do indeed look like they were frozen in time more than 30 years ago.
As Marcus reacquaints himself with his old surroundings, we slowly find out more about the world and the woman, Kerry Washington's Patricia Wilson, he left behind. In the past that shaped them and clearly still in many ways haunts them, Marcus and Patricia were soldiers in the Black Panther Party, along with Patricia's late husband, Neil, who goes unseen except in photographs but clearly hovers over everything that unfolds in "Night Catches Us". Patricia is now a lawyer raising her 9-year-old daughter Iris and 19-year-old cousin Jimmy, who is by far the more immature of the two dependents, and often much of the neighborhood, opening her home to any of the kids who need a hot meal.
Marcus also bumps up against more of his old Black Panther running mates, and that's when we find out more about his story, and why it's so hard to return. As we meet Duane "DoRight" Miller (played by Jamie Hector, aka Marlo Stanfield on "The Wire", and more on similarities with that great show later), we find out that Marcus is suspected of snitching to the feds in the case that led to Neil's death. And the truth about what did and didn't happen in that story shapes the most compelling portion of Hamilton's often complicated tale, and allows Mackie and Washington to truly shine.
Against the wishes of the older man she's involved with, Patricia offers Marcus a room in her home, and as they slowly become closer, the secrets and lies of their past also come simmering to the surface. "Night Catches Us" is at its best as they dance around the truth of their past as Iris, curious about what happened to her father, asks more and more questions. Even as Patricia claims "we don't talk about the past," she clearly clings to her idealized vision of it. Washington and Mackie let the percolating passion play out in glances that say much more than Hamilton's occasionally heavy-handed script, and its just a delight to watch the two of them on screen together.
Marcus and Patricia try to live in a world that is gray rather than starkly black and white, where, much like on David Simon's "The Wire". right and wrong collide so strongly they are often almost indistinguishable. It's when Hamilton steps out of this cocoon, however, to ask bigger questions about the often contradictory goals of the black power movement, that her story falls apart a bit in the third act.
Unlike with "The Wire", the white cops in "Night Catches Us" are one-dimensional composites that too often veer into caricatures. This robs much of the power from Jimmy's story, which asks one of Hamilton's most important questions: What is left behind after, rightly or not, so much anger is stirred up?
That Hamilton falls a bit short of answering this pales next to what she has accomplished, however, in diving into a period of American history that has too often simply been (for lack of a better word) whitewashed and telling the compelling story of two people caught up in it. She also assembles and utilizes the best largely black ensemble cast I've seen (also keep an eye out for another "The Wire" vet, Wendell Pierce, aka Bunk, as a detective who keeps hounding Marcus) since Darnell Martin's very entertaining "Cadillac Records". Check "Night Catches Us" out now on DVD, and definitely keep an eye out for what Tanya Hamilton, having dealt deftly with a complicated episode of America's past, now does with her own future.