It can sometimes be difficult to sit through a movie from an amateur, a person who, despite giving a valiant effort, lacks the precision and skill to pull off a major motion picture. Night Catches Us, the debut writing and directorial effort from first time filmmaker Tanya Hamilton, has little amateur about it. While by no means perfect, this is a confident picture that is audacious in its scope and pulled off with carefulness to ensure that its little stumbles don’t do enough to derail it.
The story takes place in Philadelphia in 1976. Marcus (Anthony Mackie) has just returned to his hometown neighborhood after an absence of four years. Upon arrival, he finds himself immediately harassed by members of the soon-to-be-extinct Black Panther party who claim he snitched on a friend of theirs, which led to his death by gunfire from the police. While in town, he shacks up with old friend and current love interest, Patricia (the wonderful Kerry Washington), whose cousin, Jimmy (Amari Cheatom), is causing her more trouble than she can handle as he violently carries out the Black Panthers cry to kill cops.
The Black Panther movement is considered one of the most significant in American history, yet their name holds a negative connotation. While they set out to do good, setting up programs to help those in need of food and healthcare, including what is arguably their most successful program, “Free Breakfast for Children,” their hatred and violent aggression towards authority counteracted any type of political or social statement they may have made otherwise. Night Catches Us passes on the best aspects of the Black Panthers and focuses solely on the worst. They are not shown doing any good in this movie and any positive thing they may have done in the past goes unspoken. For the purpose of the film, they are cop killers.
Why Hamilton did this is a question that remains unanswered, but my theory is that she desired to isolate the bad so those who stand behind the Black Panthers as righteous figures could see what type of harm they were causing. There’s a passion behind this work and you get the feeling that she is saddened by the way certain things were carried out by the movement, knowing in her heart that their messages would have had greater clarity had they not been drowned out by the bangs of gunfire.
In fact, there’s a passion to every facet of Night Catches Us that isn’t limited solely to the writer/director. The actors give downright superb performances, embracing these characters and crafting each one to fit snugly into the context of the story. Some are portrayed as good people who have done wrong while others are shown as collateral damage to the destruction that has been circling around them.
Night Catches Us authentically captures the racial and social divide of the time, never shying away from the harsh realizations of what went down between opposing factions, but with a length of less than an hour and a half, the story feels condensed. Just as it was truly beginning to explore its core themes, it began to wrap up. Perhaps this is where Tanya Hamilton’s lack of experience comes into play. She came onto something that, if expanded and handled a bit more delicately, could have been a tour de force for the fledgling filmmaker. She may not have found her masterpiece, but if she keeps putting out movies like this, she will soon enough.
Night Catches Us receives 4/5