Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Film Review-Night Catches Us

Night Catches Us

It is a cliché in some progressive circles to dismiss the Black Panthers as sexist, misogynist, misguided brutes.  Many reactionaries regard them as dangerous racist thugs. One must remember that whatever small truths may be found in those stereotypes (Eldridge Cleaver anyone?), the Black Panther Party started as the next step in the struggle for Black self-determination and self-love. The members were in many cases little more than youth who had the audacity to believe that the Constitution applied to black citizens and intended to do their best to make that belief a reality.

The Party was destroyed from without and within. Internal rivalries, gangsterism, gun worship, immaturity, COINTELPRO, police brutality and murder, prison, etc all played a part. We all know the story even though it really hasn't been told on screen the way it should be.

This is not that movie. This is a much smaller, more focused tale.  Night Catches Us is a story of the human costs of activism. It's really almost a Sophie's Choice type of film for the generation that made up much of the Panther's membership/ leadership. How do people move forward from the heady days of the sixties/early seventies when the movement was strong?

This movie was the big screen debut of writer/director Tanya Hamilton. It takes place in 1976 Philadelphia.

Anthony Mackie plays Marcus Washington, a former Panther who returns to his Germantown home for his father's funeral. Marcus has been away for a long time (it's strongly hinted that he's been on the run but he also may have been imprisoned-this is not really resolved and for my purposes here doesn't need to be).

Marcus finds that his brother Bostic (Black Thought) isn't really all that delighted to see him. Bostic has already made plans for the house and his father's estate-plans that don't include Marcus.  One person who is both happy and confused about seeing Marcus is Patricia Wilson (Kerry Washington), a former Panther who now works as a defense attorney. Marcus always had a thing for "Patty" as he calls her but never acted on it because he was best friends with her deceased husband and former leader of the local Panther chapter, Neil (Tariq Rasheed). Neil was killed by the police in suspicious circumstances. Many people think Marcus was the informer who betrayed Neil.  The most vociferous accuser is the current leader of the remaining Panthers, Do-Right (Jamie Hector), who has started a gun selling business and is not particular about the age of his customers.

Subplots swirl around Patricia's current boyfriend Carey Ford (Ron Simons) a rather self-satisfied bougie lawyer who wants to move out of the neighborhood, a black detective, Gordon (Wendell Pierce), who has some scores of his own to settle with Marcus and Patricia, and Patricia's cousin Jimmy (Amari Cheatom), a disturbed young man that was born too late to be a Panther and deeply resents it.

But what really drives the film and holds all the plots together is the quiet persistent questioning of Patricia's daughter Iris (Jamara Griffin), who wants to know who killed her father and why no one wants to talk about it. Iris has an ineffable sadness which is woven throughout the film.

I liked this movie. It was shot and scored exceedingly well. The locations are beautiful. The writing was realistic. Mackie and Washington have great scenes and good chemistry together.  The film includes archival footage of Panther rallies and speeches as well as the police response. It also features some of the work of noted artist Emory Douglas. In the year 2011 it is quite easy to look back and sneer at some of the choices that Black people have made to survive in this country.  We can speak loudly about what we would have done.  Among other things this film asks the viewer not to judge people so harshly because most were doing the best they could.  I have much respect for any Black person born say before 1955 or so. I can't imagine going through some of what they experienced and coming out with an intact sense of humanity. The casual contempt and racism of the police is depicted accurately.

Some alums from The Wire (Pierce and Hector) have a chance to stretch their acting chops. (Well Hector got that chance; Pierce was playing NATURAL PO-LICE in a very familiar manner)  The best thing about this film was to see black people playing a variety of roles in a very humanistic manner. Most of the characters are neither heroes nor villains.  The film is occasionally quiet but doesn't drag.  I would give it a seven out of ten. I'd like to see what Ms. Hamilton could do with a bigger budget and more experience. I look forward to her next work. The Roots did the music for this film.  Urban bluesman Syl Johnson "Is it because I'm Black?" is also featured. If you can find it, this is a worthwhile watch.

Is this the sort of movie you'd watch? If you saw it, what did you think? (No spoilers please!!!) 
Can predominantly black movies not directed by Tyler Perry find a market niche? Why aren't there more independent black filmmakers?
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