Movie Review: Night Catches Us (2010)

Seen: On dvd on my laptop (on a bus trip), rented from netflix.

Night Catches Us came and went pretty quickly in theaters, as I recall, so I missed it the first time around. I’m very grateful I bumped it up my netflix queue, though, because it is an exceptional film. Written and directed by Tanya Hamilton as her first feature, the film examines the lives of two former Black Panthers years after the movement lost its momentum. Marcus (Anthony Mackie) left the group under mysterious circumstances and is assumed to be a snitch by his former comrades, but is now back in his hometown of Philadelphia for his father’s funeral. Lawyer Patricia (Kerry Washington) was married to a now-deceased Panther leader, and continues to operate social programs that provide food and shelter for the disenfranchised in her community but doesn’t work closely with her old Panther members. As Marcus reconnects with Patricia and her 9-year-old daughter (Jamara Griffin), the two reflect on their choices and beliefs, and how their situations have changed over the years. Meanwhile, Patricia’s teenage nephew Jimmy (Amari Cheatom)- who idolized the Panthers growing up- begins to form a plan of his own to take revenge on the racist cops in their neighborhood.

I will immediately state that I know very little of the Black Panthers and their history. It’s not something I ever remember covering in school and I never really looked into it myself, so I saw this film as an opportunity to gain some insight into the group as well as catch two excellent, under-used actors in good leading roles. Night Catches Us served these purposes while also being a gripping, emotionally eloquent film. Hamilton’s script is sparse but multi-layered, focusing as much on what is said as is unsaid. Each character carries their history with them at all times, bringing subtle meaning and gravitas to the at-times ambiguous dialogue. It’s a good story that brings together multiple periods of the movement’s history, but is in its essence a wonderfully understated character study.

Both Anthony Mackie and Kerry Washington are so good in this movie, they sink into their roles so effortlessly that it was easy to forget I was watching two people act. I loved watching them dance around each other warily, fearing their shared past may separate them as much as it brings them together. The supporting cast is great as well, especially Jamara Griffin as young Iris, a strong-willed girl whose need to know the truth about her parents’ actions makes her fearless. It’s just a great film, all around, really. Good soundtrack, well-realized mid-70s atmosphere, and powerful performances. I wish it had been a bigger deal when it came out, and I’m embarrassed I didn’t support it when it was in theaters.

4.5/5

Pair This Movie With: I might put it with something like Talk to Me, which is another look at civil rights issues in 60s/70s urban America, and happens to also be directed by a woman of color, always something to celebrate.

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