The past haunts two former members of the Black Panther Party, in this soulful drama by writer/director Tanya Hamilton, in which the burden lies in the decision to either continue fighting the old fight, or just simply live and survive.
Set in a black Philadelphia neighborhood in 1976 (rendered in great detail by Hamilton who spent over a decade working on the film), around the time of the party's decline, where tensions between the police and the residents still run high, Hamilton centers the story on Marcus (Anthony Mackie) returning for his father's funeral, after a 4 year absence that was inspired by the community-wide belief that he sold out his Panther party partner to the Feds, which resulted in his death. And, of course, upon Marcus' return, he finds himself instantly at odds with the neighborhood, including his Muslim sibling Bostic (The Roots frontman Tariq Trotter), bitter over his brother's abandonment, as well as with new Panthers chief Dwayne (played by Jamie Hector).
In his absence, the wife of his dead partner, Patty (Kerry Washington), and her daughter Iris (newcomer Jamara Griffin), are left to fend for themselves, which leads Patty to get involved in a relatively love-less relationship with a wealthy, apathetic businessman (played by Ron Simons, who also produced the film), while having to repeatedly bail her misguided teenage cousin Jimmy (Amari Cheatom) out of jail - a young man who dreams of following in his Panthers predecessor brothers' footsteps, gun in tow.
It's a year before Jimmy Carter is elected President, and soundbites of the candidate announcing new, although ultimately unrealized, promises of change (in a nod to the age of Obama), are intercut into the film, as well as archival footage of the Panthers, underscoring the film's underlying transitional theme.
Don't go looking for a history of the party, or a one-sided view (whether criticism or praise) of the movement it inspired. Hamilton is less interested in some broad study, and more concerned with personal stories of people caught in a kind of limbo, static, not necessarily regressing nor advancing, as if waiting for a push or shove in one direction or another. There's equally a kind of romanticizing of the past glory days of the party, as well as a critique of the movement's later self-destructive militaristic descent.
Framed beautifully in muted tones, the film manages to capture the grittiness of the moment, while a soundtrack provided by The Roots, definitely punctuates the feeling and mood. Add to that the stellar cast, thanks to Hamilton and her casting director being able to attract the right combo of weathered thespians and novices, each delivering strong performances - even newcomers, Amari Cheatom and Jamara Griffin.
Character motivations and their relationships with each other are slowly revealed, however patience is rewarded. It's not a love story, but there's enough of a hint at something long-burgeoning between Marcus and Patty (their gazes at each other are dead giveaways) that will eventually evolve into something more; or possibly not, given the seemingly relentless discord that surrounds them, almost intent on keeping them apart.
Much of the story is told through the eyes of Iris (Jamara Griffin), Patty's 10-year-old daughter, who, in a way, represents the audience, precocious and curious, in trying to make sense of all the events that have helped shape, and continue to shape her community, as well as her still very young life. There's a lot there for anyone, let alone a girl of 10, to swallow, and, we could say the same for the filmmaker, Hamilton, who maybe tries to squeeze in too many characters, each with their own individual stories, and ultimately leaves a few strands in the narrative dangling (one of the film's few weaknesses) - notably Wendell Pierce's thinly-drawn police detective.
However, as its poetic title suggests, there's a quiet lyricism to the film that captivates and resonates long after, making for a compelling drama on the rather "ordinary" side of "black life" that doesn't deal in extremes, as sometimes is the case. As she stated, "There's a distinct lack of content specific to what it is to be a black American, the variations in that experience, what life is like for people who are ordinary. Those are the stories I want to tell."
Night Catches Us debuted at Sundance in 2010, and was eventually picked up for distribution by Magnolia Pictures. It's currently streaming on Netflix, and is also available on iTunes and DVD.