Title: Night Catches Us
Directed By: Tanya Hamilton
Starring: Anthony Mackie, Kerry Washington, Jamara Griffin, Amari Cheatom, Jamie Hector, Wendell Pierce
Ten years is a very long time to be working on just one film, but that’s just how it goes for most up-and-coming filmmakers. However, in first time feature writer-direct Tanya Hamilton’s case, I’d imagine she looks back fondly on every minute she spent working on Night Catches Us, for the final product truly represents not only the time she put into the project, but her passion for it as well.
It’s 1979 and Marcus (Anthony Mackie) is returning home to Philadelphia after having left town for quite a while without an explanation for his departure. When he arrives, everything has changed and nearly all of his friends and family have turned their backs on him. Marcus’ brothers, now ex-Black Panthers, are eager to humiliate him, threaten him and do just about anything to drive him out of town for they blame him for the slaying of their former leader years ago. However, Marcus finds a surrogate family in his best friend’s widow, Patricia (Kerry Washington), and her young daughter, Iris (Jamara Griffin).
Night Catches Us is rich in every facet. The story is gripping, the characters are enthralling, the performances are honest, the set is vivid, the camerawork is powerful and, to top it all off, the music really makes you feel as though you’re part of the film. There are very few movies that achieve such a level of greatness in so many areas that it’s easy to forget how much stronger a film can be when every layer gets its due attention. Hamilton has a firm grasp on every aspect of the filmmaking process and it shows.
First off, Night Catches Us is beautifully written. Minus a few minor elements that deserved some fleshing out, namely the relationship between Marcus and his actual brother, every single element in this script is fully developed. Hamilton does a fantastic job unveiling her leading duo layer by layer so that by the time the plot hits its climax, the characters practically explode along with it. It’s a character piece, it’s a drama, it’s a love story, it’s really a little of everything, and, oddly enough, what Night Catches Us is not, works in its favor, too. Rather than force every player and element into the forefront, Hamilton let’s a few linger in the background. This is most evident when it comes to the Black Panthers. Rather than get wrapped up in the organization and the politics, the movement itself takes a backseat and simply lets the main players reflect it, displaying its importance in a much more unique, subtle and natural way.
Plus, putting more significance on the characters is never a choice when you’ve got two people like Mackie and Washington in the lead roles. There’s a reason why Mackie starred in an Academy Award winning film and Washington is all over the place right now; both are fantastic performers. This is a piece that could easily have crossed the line into melodrama, but Mackie and Washington keep themselves in check, making Marcus and Patricia feel like real people. And, of course, there’s no forgetting Griffin who certainly holds her own amongst these bigger stars. Mackie and Washington have quite a bit of heavy material to manage, so, while Iris is struggling with a serious matter of her own, Griffin still keeps things light and helps keep the film pleasurable.
Even with such riveting characters and performances, it’s impossible not to take notice of the downright gorgeous imagery. The combination of extremely comprehensive camera work and careful attention to set design really makes just about every item, no matter how small, pop. In fact, it’s some of the close-ups that are particularly vibrant, so much so they’re worthy of being stills and displayed on a wall. The vibrancy of the footage is a little unusual for a period piece, but it’s so pleasing to the eye, it’s easy to accept. And then there’s no forgetting the music, which, like the imagery, is so impressive it can stand alone. The score comes from The Roots, who created something that not only sets the mood in terms of the period in which the story takes place, but also something that is wildly appealing now.
While Night Catches Us stands out for so many reasons, the one that tops them all is the manner in which Hamilton presents the characters, which is directly related to the timing of the story. If any other filmmaker made this movie, odds are, we would have been given a product set during the height of the Black Power movement for no other reason but to glorify the action. However, not only did Hamilton create an immensely compelling film by doing the opposite and showing us what happens post-Panthers, but she sheds light on the years before by doing so. Hamilton is a talented writer and director and after seeing Night Catches Us, you’ll be eager to see what she delivers next.
By Perri Nemiroff