Night Catches Us
Director: Tanya Hamilton
I’ve been thinking a lot about Selma over the past week in terms of what it means and what it doesn’t, what it was nominated for and what it wasn’t. In light of my recent thoughts about the lack of diversity in the 2015 Oscar nominations and racial tension between blacks and police officers, I decided to watch another extremely relevant film by a black female director and screenwriter. Night Catches Us premiered at Sundance in 2010 and went on the win a host of awards at the Black Reel Awards but only received a staggered limited release in 11 theatres. Despite how underseen the film was, its importance has only grown over the years. In terms of historical events and not release dates, Night Catches Us can be viewed as a spiritual successor to Selma — a look at what becomes of the Civil Rights Movement when its most prominent leaders are dead or imprisoned.
Night Catches Us takes place in Philadelphia in 1976 and centers on Marcus (Anthony Mackie), an ex-Black Panther member who returns home for his father’s funeral. Despite his labeling as a snitch and warnings from his former friend and local gangster, Marcus stays in Philly and rekindles his relationship with Patricia (Kerry Washington), the widow of a Black Panther member who was executed by cops. Marcus and Patricia struggle with their past and whether or not they even want to leave it behind.
In many ways, Night Catches Us is a post-war homecoming story. It follows the traditional structure of a soldier returning home to find the place he knew (or thought he knew) is no longer the same. But the war Marcus fought and is fighting is a racial one, a war that the Civil Rights Movement did not end, despite the fact that so many people believe it did. Anthony Mackie and Kerry Washington both imbue their characters with weariness and an inability to know how to proceed. Without ever sacrificing the intimacy or emotion of the characters’ arcs, Hamilton allows them to also stand in as representations for the different ideologies that faced blacks in the ’70s and onward. If Selma explores the unity amongst blacks, even through disagreements on how to proceed, then Night Catches Us explores the subsequent disarray, the black community separated by gangs, black-savior mentality, and the shadows of Malcom X, Martin Luther King Jr., and Huey Newton.
Despite the central romantic plot, the weight of the film lies in the relationship between Marcus and Iris, Patricia’s 10-year-old daughter. Their relationship provides the means for Hamilton to pose the question of “what do we teach our children?” in a world where cops will antagonize blacks just to arrest them. Or worse, how can you teach black children to respect police officers, that not all cops are like that, and to still be honest about the realities and the war they were born into? In one of the film’s most topical scenes, Iris’s older cousin dresses up in a Black Panther uniform and murders a cop sitting in his car. When he’s later killed execution style by a group of police officers, it’s hard not to wonder about Iris’s eventual fate. There’s hope, but she’s also the product of her environment and a mother who would rather use her status as a lawyer to post bail for neighborhood criminals than move away from her Black Panther ties.
All of the central messages from the great war movies of our time, “war is hell,” “the first casualty of war is innocence,” “the horror, the horror,” are embedded within this film. Hamilton doesn’t draw intentional parallels in that regard, but they exist nonetheless. She highlights how easy it is for a child to learn the ways of violent revolution in one of the film’s standout scenes in which a comic book manual about Black Panthers is animated through Iris’s eyes. The disillusionment that settles on all the characters in the film is almost palpable, and Hamilton refuses a trite and happy ending, preferring instead to let the sense of disappointment and entrapment remain. Yes, in the end there’s a measure of hope and the possibility to wander free. But Hamilton is aware, just as we should be, that all these battles from a ghetto in 1976 have a way of raging on and catching up to those who think they can be free of it.
Night Catches Us feels personal and at the same time incredibly large and present. All the racial issues that we’re dealing with now, whether they be the murders of unarmed black men, the failure of juries to indict, the execution of innocent cops, or even the lack of representation of people of color in our motion picture industry, are nothing new. They are simply a result of the night—America’s racially divided past—catching up and being examined in the daylight.