“Night Catches Us” (2010)

Tanya Hamilton’s Night Catches Us is set in 1976 Philadelphia—a specificity aligning it with Hal Ashby’s Shampoo and Jim Sheridan’s The Boxer as stories whose time and place aren’t a mere backdrop, but a bedrock for their characters’ interactions. A former Black Panther named Marcus returns to his old neighborhood for the first time in years; his father has died, but Marcus is almost immediately consumed by the living network of friends and neighbors who once made up his life. Practically none of these people are happy to see him, blaming him as they do for the police assassination, years earlier, of his closest friend in the Panthers. The only exceptions—the dead man’s widow (Kerry Washington) and her young daughter—have surprisingly tangled personal reasons for taking Marcus into their home.

A lot of the ’60s-era revolutionaries gained in interest only after it was apparent how little they were actually going to change the world. The fragmentation of the left after America’s withdrawal from Vietnam, the FBI’s counterintelligence work against leftist groups, and the natural passage of time all worked to undo the “revolution”, leaving most of its participants free and clear to cut their hair and start raising families of their own—which more than a few of them had in mind all along. A few ideologues hung in there, but most of these were little more than human barometers, forever scouting the political heavens for signs of a favorable pressure system that would never come. And then a few—a very few­­—had to hang in there simply because they’d climbed too far out on the limb of those heady times.

Night Catches Us is about the unresolved anger of the ’60s, and the need to find a way forward when the Promised Land has, despite all assurances, failed to materialize—as fundamentally American a theme as one can think of. The dilemma is most achingly expressed by Jimmy, a young man whose rage against white oppression sparks in him the most self-destructive version of Black Power. Hamilton’s movie may be a noticeably un-slick and sober affair, but it’s far from flat or boring; starting from a deliberately remote vantage point, it tracks in closer and closer to its characters until we can see the exact dimensions of the social web holding them in place. If that sounds familiar, fans of The Wire will appreciate seeing Wendell Pierce a/k/a “Bunk Moreland” as a callous police detective and Jamie Hector playing a stormy-tempered bar-owner. (Hector, several pounds heavier than he was as Marlo Stanfield and sporting a full beard, is simply on fire in this thing.)

It’s a given that Night Catches Us wouldn’t catch on with rock-headed American audiences, but it still deserves more than the measly $72,000 it’s grossed to date. It deserves respect. As it is, the movie lost a shot at finding some just last Friday, when The New York Times, in an article explicitly devoted to the paucity of films about African-Americans, failed to mention it at all. Yeah, that’s right. Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott were so busy running down their checklist of old Hattie McDaniel yarns that, in a story citing thirty-plus movies, they didn’t mention Night Catches Us a single time, despite referencing Anthony Mackie—its star. It’s nice to know that the Times cares and all, but damn, people. At least try to act like you know which way up your ass goes.

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