In Tanya Hamilton’s new film Night Catches Us, a man returns to the old Philadelphia neighborhood where he once participated in the Black Panther Party. Marcus (Anthony Mackie) finds himself constantly defending his decision to walk away from it all, though he never could walk away from his former comrade Patricia (Kerry Washington). Race tensions and police brutality continue to fuel the fire of militant behavior throughout the area, and in turn Marcus’s past is never quite laid to rest.
Hamilton, a director fairly new to feature length films, transformed the present day Philadelphia neighborhood into a ghost of the 1970s. Set in 1976, and featuring an strong music score done entirely by The Roots, the film initially seems like a documentary. The slow and steady pace hints at the fact that life for these people has since slowed down.
Mackie, whose most notable role was in last year’s Oscar winner The Hurt Locker, and Washington, whose extensive career includes celebrated performances in the award winning The Last King of Scotland and Ray, have unmistakable chemistry in this heavy drama that brings out emotional themes just as much as it draws from political ones. Hamilton plays with notions of “the one who got away”, with the two characters first respecting the lives they’ve been able to achieve since their Panther days, then ignoring it to fulfill fantasies of the past.
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Though Washington does a fine job as the conflicted Patricia, the true stand out performance in this film belongs to Anthony Mackie. He flexes his dramatic muscles more than ever before, and proves he can handle the true grit and honesty required of the subject matter. This film is a prime example of just how talented Mackie is, and is sure to be a stepping-stone for future roles as the leading man. The supporting cast includes television and comedic great Wendell Pierce, and several fairly quiet black actors like Jamie Hector of The Wire and impressive newcomer Amari Cheatom.
Overall, Night Catches Us only scratches the surface of conflict. The elements are there for intense drama, but they aren’t given enough time to develop. It is resistant, almost standing back from portraying the anger, the grief, and the circumstances that really warrant many of the characters’ behaviors. There are outbursts of conflict, but they fade just as quickly as they come.
Though the film draws from the political movement that was the Black Panther Party, it’s also about fighting an invisible war. The greater social commentary is about whether or not black people participate in movements for reasons other than the excitement and expressions of anger. What happens when the revolution is no longer televised? When picket signs and raised fists no longer compete with briefcases and corporate handshakes, the fantastical freedom fight has to take a backseat to the cold, hard, capitalist reality.
In essence, Night Catches Us shows that there are people behind the movements, and their lives must continue.