Night Catches Us is Philadelphia-based independent filmmaker Tanya Hamilton’s first feature film. It made its debut at the Twin Cities Film Festival on September 30th. The heart of the film is the connection between Marcus Washington [Anthony Mackie of The Hurt Locker and Million Dollar Baby], a pragmatic drifter, and felon, and Patricia Wilson [Kerry Washington of The Last King of Scotland and She Hate Me].
Night Catches Us gives us relationships. And secrets. And reckonings. And reconciliations. That’s a lot for 90-minutes, but it works well, except for this film’s twitchy volume dial; occasionally the dialogue or score would drop or leap a few decibels. That’s only a problem when you’re trying to pay attention.
There are the political stories, and the erotic. Some secrets to protect those adults from truths, which hurt more than their chosen, accepted myths. Other secrets to protect a child, letting her keep her fleeting innocence. Maybe the film’s title comes from the idea that the night catches us with our guards down, and secrets more accessible.
There are three or so pivotal relationships are tense, each carrying historical baggage. On the political tip, Marcus must move past or through Dwayne AKA “Do Right” [Jaime Hector], a former Panther and local thug, who just knows that Marcus’ snitching killed a Panther. On the erotic tip, he rekindles with his lost lover, Patty (That’s Patricia, damn it!) after what she calls abandonment.
In this tight, largely segregated community, their neighborhood is family; that family’s post-1960s politics has cooled into the pragmatic. In order to keep Patty’s home space calm, Marcus confronts a morose, young, wannabe Panther, Jimmy [Amari Cheatom], who is ne’er do well, lost in the romance of activism. Amid Marcus’ confrontations and rekindlings, Patricia strives to smooth the scuffles, which he leaves in his wake – she wants him to stick around.
Marcus has to reckon with “Do Right” for being the snitch that the whole neighborhood “knows” he is, but that he knows he isn’t. “Do Right” needs to assert and affirm his defacto reign over the area. Marcus has meager time for that viril, righteous, boasting. That doesn’t slow “Do Right” even a bit.
The knuckle-head character, Jimmy [Amari Cheatom], is a forthright jab at the myriad young Black men who are lost, scared, and struggling, but dare not let on. Weakness does nothing for street cred. He’s like the cats who spout off Malcolm X or Stokely Carmichaels’ well-worn words, but barely understand how much study and struggle went into them. Jimmy knows too little to carry the words, or the respect that he expects to earn by speaking them. He is a lesson.
Marcus and Patty reconnect.
The budding rapport between Marcus and Patricia’s daughter, Iris, is significant and special for the trio. The girl’s point of view is also a door that connects this film to To Kill a Mockingbird through her Scout-like precocity. Marcus’ quiet strength endears and engages her. He resembles the father figure whom she has lacked, nevermind that Patty already has been sharing her home, bed and herself with one steady man. Marcus is a different refreshing one; in being so, he eases Patty’s burden.
This is an atypical, even radical film, particularly for a Black person, and especially a woman, to make, in at least three ways. First off, there’s no urban blight. Secondly, Patty’s household is basically in-tact, and thirdly we are reminded of or given a primer on the Black Panthers.
The film flaunts no prototypical ghetto blights – neither drugs, nor prostitutes, nor typical gun play, nor casual swearing. In addition to those omissions, Ms. Hamilton’s story is subtly radical. We have an improvised, functional nuclear family with the temporary trio. Both adults are smart, warm, and educated. That isn’t even the radical stuff: Marcus and Patricia’s respective stories provide a primer on the Philadelphia Black Panthers – at least in broad strokes.
Marcus and Iris get close
I ought not fawn over this film or the satisfaction. Chris Rock has joked about “Givin’ people extra credit for doin’ shit they’re already supposed to be doing.” I know: I’m a film snob, along with my other assorted snobberies. But I yearn for stories like this, that are quiet and simple, and which remind me of Akeelah and the Bee. When cynical or quietly bigoted Anglo money men drag their feet, they insist that there’s no audience. Night Catches Us is a splendid surprise. There are scant well-made films for thinking Black people (or for brown or beige one). I hope this refreshes viewers and draws them to the cinema when Night Catches Us comes out on December 3rd. I give extra credit, hoping that that emboldens other filmmakers who want to follow suit.
Ms. Hamilton found inspiration for Night Catches Us from and made connections to To Kill a Mockingbird. When she had just arrived in high school, she found some of her “aunt’s” things: memories from her activism, like an arrest outside the White House. She was engaged and curious. Her “aunt” wasn’t – at all. Both surprises, the discovery and the stern reticence, opened her mind. In some ways, the girl, Iris, is the filmmaker. Ms. Hamilton’s experience was the slow drip through her life, which impelled her to finally translate that experience, and soem dogged research into this film.
On the technical and aesthetic tips, even though this is Ms. Hamilton’s first feature, she already has a film grammar that distinguishes her work from most of her peers. In a conversation with her, she said that her thesis film at Cooper Union also showed her chosen editorial style: a taste for a mélange of dramatic, archival, and different types of animated footage.
The opening or title sequence can tell a lot about the film and its maker. Is it banal or conservative, is it boldly artistic or vibrant, does it command your attention and interest? Much as out television themes used to describe the show’s world, objective, and attitude, this title sequence does too. It uses hip-hop music, hip-hop influenced images, and movements between those two, to outline the world, history, and dramas within Night Catches Us. Bottom-line: is it used to support the story; in a robust way? These sequences rarely merit a conversation. You can debate whether it should draw our attention, whether it should be subtle and conservative, or should resemble children as W.C. Fields often supposedly said, “be seen and not heard.” I am already biased and convinced.
How about the editing style or aesthetic? I cannot recall the last film I saw that dared to exploit more than dramatic and archival shots in one film, consistently. Night Catches Us moves beyond that: it uses animation, two different types, and does it in as many ways. It’s refreshing. A crude, hand-made Black Panthers comic book of mediocre line drawings comes to moving, swaggering life before Iris eyes as she thumbs through it. It grabs out attention too. It’s a remarkable and motivating animation until Marcus tells knucklehead Jimmy the truth about the propaganda’s source. He pops Jimmy’s bubble, and deflates some of its militant sweetness and fire.
If we’re going to rate this film, 4 1/2 out of 5.