Writer-director Tanya Hamilton reveals a postrevolutionary America that seldom appears on film screens, and explores the reverberations of violence via a handful of quietly powerful stories in “Night Catches Us.” It’s a period drama in which former Black Panthers juggle 1960s ideals with Jimmy Carter-era realities.
Hamilton employs routine storytelling devices but achieves freshness and grip by creating characters worthy of viewers’ emotional investment and by filling their streets and living rooms with an air of history and a tone of hauntedness.
The setting is a 1976 Philadelphia neighborhood where the expectations and electricity of the Black Panther Party days have waned and the voice of Carter is issuing new-hope promises.
Denizens include combat-fatigued former soldiers, practical-thinking activists, and those adhering to the movement’s militant aspects.
The return of an ex-Panther named Marcus (Anthony Mackie), following a prodigal-style absence, leads things off.
Back for his father’s funeral, Marcus experiences hostility from DoRight (Jamie Hector) and other former party members. They believe he was the snitch whose ratting caused the death of Neil, the comrade whose ghost seems to loom everywhere.
A kinder welcome comes from Patricia (Kerry Washington), who was married to Neil. She’s now a community-service lawyer and the mother of 10-year-old Iris (Jamara Griffin), who is beginning to ask pithy questions about her slain father.
Hamilton builds drama from several threads. The question of who snitched gives rise to a whodunit element and a sense of danger.
Jimmy (Amari Cheatom), Patricia’s angry cousin, gets into an antagonistic tangle with a brutal racist cop. The old erotic tension between Marcus and Patricia resurfaces.
This is Hamilton’s first feature, and at times her neophyte status shows. Some of the arguments feel forced. The use of footage and photographs to represent past events, instead of recollections or flashbacks, doesn’t give much historical detail about the Panthers and the Black Power movement.
But it’s rare to see radical politics seriously depicted in any form in American cinema, and overall, the movie is a sparkling debut. As an immersion in a place and time on the culture map, and as a story about liberation dreams and the aftershocks of violence, it stays with you.
Hamilton additionally limits the whodunit twists and doesn’t let her fondness for symbolism become heavy-handed (a scene in which peeled-off wallpaper reveals old blood stains is particularly effective).
The romance doesn’t get unrealistic. The bond Marcus develops with young Iris is sweetly affecting.
The performances reflect Hamilton’s sensitive, humane direction. Mackie and Washington, playing decent people trying to make peace with the past, keep us caring.
Starring Anthony Mackie, Kerry Washington, Amari Cheatom, Jamie Hector
Written and directed by Tanya Hamilton
Running time 1 hour 28 minutes