Philadelphia, summer 1976. A former Black Panther returns to the neighborhood for his father’s funeral. He’s been branded as a snitch and is greeted with hostility by former brothers-in-arms. Flames are ignited anew when meeting an old girlfriend. The keys to violence of the past are entwined with her and her almost 10-year-old daughter. A teenage relative of the girlfriend’s has understandable volatile resentment against cops patrolling the neighborhood. He hustles collecting cans and other recyclables. An old Panther propaganda comic book helps sway him. He is allured with the perceived power of the Panthers.
Writer-director Tanya Hamilton tells a fully human story about social politics and violent radicalism. Not for a moment does it preach like it so easily could. The acting is terrific and guided with a gifted hand that seeks emotional truth behind actions. Reasons are not black or white; tough decisions are often not made willingly. It’s the kind of human drama Spike Lee did well in his early films. But here polemics are not the central focus and nor are visuals on level with Lee’s wonderful vibrancy. This is a film about polemics but not polemical itself. Stylistically it resembles a Kasi Lemmons film (Eve’s Bayou, Talk To Me). Editing could be crisper. The ending packs a punch.
Outside of Black Cinema, a label quite intentional on Hamilton’s part, there are still interesting pararllels. Night Catches Us is as much about violent political radicalism as The Bader Meinhof Complex but without awe-inspiring scenes of political rallies and mass conflicts. Instead, Night Catches Us happens long after the dead are buried and people are in jail. The long-term effects on family, friends, and community are explored—a perspective American cinema rarely mines which should be cherished here.
Anthony Mackie, Kerry Washington, and Jamara Griffin deliver wonderful nuanced performances. The ghosts of the past speak through their eyes as much as anything else. For The Wire fans, Wendell Pierce appears in a role that can’t help but remind of The Bunk. At this time, Night Catches Us will be released in November. Doubtlessly, they’re after year-end top ten list and awards attention. This is worthy of the acclaim.