Night Catches Us: a review

(Originally posted in 2010 revised for MLK Day 2015)
On January 1st, I dropped a trailer for the film Night Catches Us. I didn’t know a lot about the film but I knew that Kerry Washington and Anthony Mackie were the lead actors and to me this meant that it was a movie worth my time. I had generally forgotten about the film since then, until it showed up in our Instant Watch on Netflix.
Night Catches Us is the feature film debut of Tanya Hamilton who wrote and directed the movie. In the easiest description of the film Marcus (Anthony Mackie) returns to Philadelphia where he was a member of the Black Panther Party. Patricia (Kerry Washington) another former Panther still remains in the same neighborhood where a tragic situation has created in her the need to carry on the programs created by the Panthers, although the BPP is no longer in the position of influence it held.
Hamilton uses an artistic lens to capture Philadelphia and the film is more like a study of the neighborhood for photography and videography. The images of the Philly streets are often captured with the street signs in the background, or buildings or abandoned lots, trash strewn streets, in contrast to the images she captures of children playing and people walking from neighborhood stores. Every shot involves a character, in thought, standing face to face with someone or something that seems to be eroding. The score by the Roots recreates a seventies sound without sounding antiquated. Overall the movie is beautifully crafted and at 1hour and 30 minutes the scenes shift and move quickly, which isn’t jarring, but does create questions.
Although the imagery and quality is incredible I could only give the film 3 out of 5 stars. It was not due to the acting, which held together a script that had more potential than follow through. The acting was powerful and Mackie and Washington lend credibility to their roles and depth to lines that lack the needed development to really grasp the time. The Black Panther Party has appeared in film often and there has yet to be a portrayal that has really defined what the Panthers did and how important they are to history. Hamilton does use actual footage of the Death of Fred Hampton and archival footage of the Panthers and their food programs and of course the shots of Bobby Seale and the chants are always there lingering at moments of confusion, but the story is rushed and some plot points are established but not given enough clarity. Black Thought (Tariq Trotter of the The Roots) plays Marcus’ brother Bos, a Muslim who is only utilized in a few scenes, but his voice and the visual depiction of him in his all black clothing and his relationship with his brother could have been a stronger storyline.
What Night Catches Us does do very well is to capture the confusion of the 70s and this makes the film worth watching. The 70s saw the removal of certain political and social walls for Blacks. It seemed that the advancements of the Civil Rights movement had actually given Blacks some status, but the actual facts were that the Black neighborhood became more fractured and the Panthers’ role in the neighborhood, became unstable due to government (national and local) forces that infiltrated and corrupted the organization. This destruction of the people from the inside out, left a whole generation with the ideals of the Panthers, but without the foundation. In other words the destruction of the Panthers created the current state in Black America: People who are unaware of the damage controlled media images and broken homes create in the community. This is given incredible power in one scene with the character Jimmy (Patricia’s brother) who is a young man searching for an identity in a world that is not ready to accept him as a man and a world that does not want to explain to him the past.
While somewhat predictable, with stock characters, Night Catches Us is a solid film that should be watched because it is important and entertaining.
Here is the trailer.

The website for the film can be found by visiting