FILM: Night Catches Us

For a film that took ten years to complete and debut on the silver screen, Night Catches Us is a film full of wanting. And ghosts. In an interview, writer-director, Tanya Hamilton, shared, “I wanted to make a movie that was doggedly African American. And by that I meant that whole kind of Black Power era is just … it’s about Black people.” Hamilton succeeds in producing a beautifully shot, distinctly African American narrative, exploring the tenderness that often precedes violent desires–a vision of one’s community without constant police harassment, for instance–and unbridled truths brought out because of a young girl’s need to know more than just a string of myths about her deceased Black Panther father.

Did he hurt people?

Was he a killer?

Why can’t we talk about him?

The film is anchored in Philadelphia, 1976, the year that marked the United States’ bicentennial. Night Catches Us forces viewers to question what lasting impact the Black Panthers Movement had on its many participants and the children born in the wake of the movement’s decline. In this film, the characters share a history of irreconcilable traumas. While some eventually choose to detach themselves from the movement and attempt to heal, others remain frozen and entrenched in the very places where those soul-shattering acts of violence took place. Through the masterful interplay of archival footage, a funky yet tempered soundtrack by The Roots, and nuanced interactions between committed actors, Night Catches Us is solid the way a debut film must be to spark a future career, but not altogether unforgettable. Slowly, the film’s characters cautiously unravel their protective emotional walls and fabricated identities. The script, like some hip-hop undertones in its musical score, feels sampled at times. This leaves viewers yearning for some missing charisma: retrospective frames of the Black Panther father with his young wife (played by Kerry Washington), perhaps?

Jamara Griffin (left) and Anthony Mackie (right). Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

There are muted scenes of violence, unexpected, animated snippets leaping from comic book pages which capture the imagination, and explosive acts of passion between lovers. But, these events are subdued by lulls in pace and underdeveloped characters whose dialogue can be contrived at times. Nevertheless, George Washington University alum Kerry Washington (“Ray,” “Lift”) is stunning as Patricia Wilson, the former wife of the ‘voice’ of the Black Panther Movement. Since her days as a Panther, Patricia has become an attorney with an inquisitive almost-ten-year-old to answer to, who wonders why they never left the house in which her father was gunned down by the police. Wilson’s current boyfriend has had enough of her nostalgia, whispering menacingly as he walks out, “You’re living in the past, Patricia. This house, this neighborhood. You’re all fighting imaginary enemies.”

These ‘imaginary enemies,’ along with real ones, seem to follow Marcus, too, played by irresistibly handsome Anthony Mackie (“The Hurt Locker”). After being accused of “snitching” on his former Black Panther comrade, Wilson’s former husband, Marcus disappears. Marcus is drawn back to the neighborhood he grew up in, after a four-year hiatus, when his father passes. In some ways, Mackie’s character is rendered intriguing by all he is unable to articulate about this self-imposed exile. But little is revealed about his time away, another mistakenly spared detail which could have added volumes to the narrative.

Amari Cheatom as Patricia’s cousin, Jimmy Dixon. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

The internal struggles of the real people who fueled the Black Power Movement are intelligently revealed in this film. However, at times the layers of these characters are peeled back so gingerly that we can only assume–rather than experience–their depth. Still, Night Catches Us shows that both holding secrets and releasing them can bring peace. What we don’t admit binds us to those with whom we share the silence.  Secrets can also unravel what we believe to be true about ourselves, and what may seem to function as survival tactics can haunt us gradually, insidiously. In her debut film, Hamilton reminds us that we will always harbor these ghosts if we do not face them somehow.

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The West End Cinema–the only theatre in DC currently playing Night Catches Us through December 30th–recently opened at 2301 M Street NW and is as close to a home cinema as you can get, so curb your enthusiasm if you’re hoping for a multiplex. The screen is a bit small and the chairs are stand-alone recliners that look fit for a DJ’s basement studio. Viewers are privy to the staff working out the kinks of pressing “play” on the DVD player, while the lights awkwardly shut off one at a time. But, if you’re up for the adventure and the charm that comes with an indy cinema house, West End promises “all stories told here.” We look forward to seeing what other indy gems they’ll show.  For movies and showtimes, visit