There is nothing terribly wrong with “Night Catches Us,” writer-director Tanya Hamilton’s feature debut, one simply gets the impression of being haunted without the pay off of unmasking the “ghosts” responsible. Truth be told I walked into the theatre with prejudiced expectations based on two high impact words – Black Panthers.
I was sold on the lore of Kwame Ture, Angela Davis, Huey Newton, and the many nameless brothers and sisters who rode the rage against the machine right inside their own neighborhoods – totting shotguns and serving breakfast to poor kids. But I seemed to catch them at a time when shotguns, and even street protests, were no longer their weapons of choice – only paranoia. (Rumors of who “snitched” and listening to clicks on telephones because maybe it’s the FBI listening on the other end).
Maybe there is a subtle statement in there about the emotional void we must experience after the climax of revolution televised so boldly. I am ashamed to say that I came to see rage, and foregoing that, reckless tension turned deadly. All that apparently happens before the camera shows up, but worse than that the cameras stop rolling just before more challenging days return.
Therefore the story centers almost lullaby-like on a small stretch of time ten years after a major Panthers-versus-Police incident in a small Philadelphia neighborhood claims the life of a local Black Panther leader, father to the curious ten-year-old Iris and partner to Iris’ mother Patricia (Kerry Washington), formerly revolutionary Patty, who is seemingly in love with revolutionary cohort Marcus (Anthony Mackie) who just blew back into town to bury his father.
Ten years seems like a nice round number mathematically but dramatically it is a killer for this story. Iris is neither old enough to demand truths for the secrets her mother keeps, nor is she given the childish agency to go through drawers and discover much by herself. (I will say that I have read many a letter in my mothers drawers just because childhood got boring, some I regretted. But others gave me whole summers of insight into the adults around me that I would not take back for anything). Iris is not given that lens, and as a result she basically ends up a ten-year-old wandering around the plot.
This is a shame since her view of the neighborhood might have revealed much more than the insular references the adults around her seem resigned to. From the police officer (Wendell Pierce) who seems to think he is owed something by these thugs in revolution disguise, to Patty’s unfortunate cousin Jimmy (Amari Cheatom) who ends up the story’s main dramatic foil after a shootout, all the grown ups seem lost in the aura of their own remembered past.
We only visit this past in black and white Panther protest archival footage interspersed with the scenes, in black and white pictures of beret-wearing Patty and Marcus in younger days, and in the word “snitch” – vandalized on Marcus’ car throughout the film and lingering in the stares of everyone who recognizes him in the neighborhood. It only holds your attention for so long before you too feel ten years old, and lost in a world fabricated to distract you from peeling off the wallpaper in the living room, just to see the blood stains of your cop-shot father underneath. It frustrates because you feel someone is cheating you from a real juicy story on purpose.
Ultimately we learn that there are three possible tales to be told here; a) a Black Panther neighborhood leader comes up with a dangerous plan to kill a police officer and ends up dead as well, b) a single-mother deals with a personal secret that inadvertently killed her admired husband (turns out she was the snitch, not Marcus) and/or c) a daughter struggles with her mother to escape the ghosts of mother’s past and either fails or succeeds. We are left to witness story B mostly, distracted by the tail ends of story A, and frustrated that the credits roll before story C starts.
However in all this there is a lot of beauty. For one, a wonderful soundtrack that is pitch perfect from The Roots. (Seriously, soulful guitar licks never crept up on you so lovingly, and every time a car radio played you were right there in the neighborhood circa 1976). And there are steady performances all around – Amari Cheatom stands out though as the wannabe revolutionary Jimmy, lost in his own frustrations, fighting a revolution he seems a little late for. There are beautiful observations by Ms. Hamilton of a generation growing up in what must have felt like the aftershock of the at once glorious and frightening bomb blast that was the Civil Rights movement. Perhaps reliving or transferring this frustration is the only point. (There was a revolution, but now what? Nothing? Really?!)
So there is nothing terribly wrong when night catches us – poetically, musically, emotionally – except that for a movie about Black Panthers night catches us without much grit.