Night Catches Us

With Night Catches Us, writer/director Tanya Hamilton, who just received an Independent Spirit nomination for best first feature, doesn’t grab us from the onset but rather drops us in and allows us to wade around in an ocean of conflict as an ex-Black Panther named Marcus (The Hurt Locker‘s Anthony Mackie) returns to his old stomping grounds.

The film is set in 1976 Philadelphia and the story unfolds in an unmistakably ’70s manner with a slow burn reminiscent of the classic political paranoia films, with suitably dark and grainy cinematography.  In fact, the music supplied by The Roots, while awesome, is the only facet of period detail that doesn’t really work.  Perhaps I’m just too used to hearing them with Jimmy Fallon every night, but the tunes took something away from the otherwise stellar atmosphere.

Marcus does not receive a warm welcome when he moves back home after the death of his father.  Though he has been gone for a number of years, people call him names like “rat” and spray paint “snitch” on his car doors.  The film acts as a mystery in this sense, as Hamilton slowly peels back the layers about Marcus’s past and we learn what he did to earn this reputation.  It’s a bit confusing at first as we try to decipher his various relationships, but it all comes together nicely.

Though the film features glimpses of archival footage and Black Panther comic books brought to animation, Hamilton doesn’t seem intent on providing a commentary on the movement as a whole — just this small, personal story about a man trying to put his past behind him.

There’s a scene in the movie with Marcus sleeping in his car under a bridge, where he has become fully prepared to live.  Patty, an old friend played wonderfully by Kerry Washington, knocks on his window.  He rolls down the window, eventually turning down her offer to come live in her home.  After the conversation, he rolls the window back up — but still a few inches from the top.  He doesn’t completely rule out the possibility of moving in with Patty, just as he’s not fully closing the door on his past.

Much of the film is shown through the eyes of Patty’s 9-year-old daughter Iris (Jamara Griffin), who seems to be mature beyond her years.  She’s the heart of the film a lot of ways, forced to grow up in the center of this turmoil but with the whole world at her disposal.  You get the sense that she’ll grow up to make a difference, but not by shooting a cop.  Having learned the repercussions at such a young age, she’ll smart enough to know violence isn’t an agent for change.  At least that’s what we hope.

7/10

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