Friday, December 31, 2010

Movie Review: Night Catches Us

Night Catches Us ***
Directed by: Tanya Hamilton.
Written By: Tanya Hamilton.
Starring: Anthony Mackie (Marcus Washington), Kerry Washington (Patricia Wilson), Wendell Pierce (David Gordon), Jamie Hector ('DoRight' Miller), Tariq Trotter (Bostic Washington), Ron Simons (Carey Ford), Amari Cheatom (Jimmy Dixon), Tariq Rasheed (Neil Wilson), Jamara Griffin (Iris Wilson).

It is not a coincidence that Night Catches Us takes place in 1976, in Philadelphia, the Bi-centennial of America in the city where the country was born, where there were many celebrations designed to try and lift the spirits of Americans following Vietnam and the Watergate scandal. These celebrations are never seen onscreen - they are not even mentioned - but are relevant nonetheless. Just like the newsreel footage of the struggles of the Black Panthers of the 1960s that plays throughout the movie, not as a history lesson, but more like dreams or memories, they inform the action of the rest of the movie.

The movie opens with Marcus (Anthony Mackie) returning to Philly for the first time in four years for his fathers funeral. He left under a cloud of suspicion for his former Black Panther brothers, and it isn’t long before DoRight (Jamie Hector) shows up and tells him that it would be best if he left town - they don’t like snitches. But Marcus has no intention of leaving - at least not yet. He reconnects with Patricia (Kerry Washington), the wife of Marcus’ former best friend who was killed by the police, and a lawyer who cannot help but continue to help her husband’s former associates - no matter what they are doing. She is resisting the advances of one of more respectable colleagues who wants to leave the past behind. But she cannot let it go.

The movie relies more on memory than on action. These characters were involved with the Black Panthers in the 1960s and early 1970s, and even though by 1976 their relevance has waned, it still informs everything they do. At the same time, the legend of the Panthers has grown, and the younger generation who don’t remember the time have warped the lessons of the time into one where violence for its own sake. This is the start of black on black violence than would rise to epidemic proportions in the decades to come.

Written and directed by Tanya Hamilton, making her debut, Night Catches Us reminded me of the films of Spike Lee - not just because all of the characters in the movie are black, but because of the anger and rage that simmers beneath the surface, the racism by the police - and not just the white officers, but also the one black cop we see (played with profane brilliance by Wendell Pierce). Hamilton seems to have taken lessons for Lee in constructing her film, from both a writing and directing standpoint. It is a very impressive debut.

However, I could have done with the secrets that run through the film. The central question is who told the police about Patricia’s husband - which led to his death. Marcus has received the blame, but denies it. Patricia refuses to talk about her husband - even to the daughter they have together, and as such the secrets only slowly seep out through the course of the film. It is a rather cheap gimmick, and is not worthy of the movie that surrounds it.
But overall, Night Catches Us is a sold film - one that marks Hamilton as a director to watch. Her dialogue, with a few exceptions where it is a little too on the nose, is crisp and clean, and she gets wonderful performances out of her actors. Her visual style is subdued, but really does feel like a film from the 1970s, and has terrific attention to detail. Night Catches Us is an intelligent film about a turbulent time in American history - one whose implications continue to be felt today.

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