The Black Panther Party in its twilight, circa 1976. Gone are the breakfast programs, dashikis, megaphones and big Afros, as well as the gun-toting, black-leather-clad militants. In the wake of the formidable black nationalist movement are both ruin and rumination. Single black mothers trying to save a community, former Black Panther members turned vigilantes, and fatherless daughters haunted by the legendary leaders of the past.
Set in Philadelphia, Tanya Hamilton’s moving debut feature, Night Catches Us, is neither nostalgic nor sentimental. Her attention to period details is focused, meticulous and unswerving. Within the first few minutes of the film, the viewer is caught up in a faraway past: When Jimmy Carter was on the verge of becoming president, plaid pants and pageboy caps were in style, and Cadillacs rested on every corner. Most remarkably, it was still a time when black people held bail parties for those wrongly incarcerated and refused a “stop and frisk” by cops because it denied their constitutional rights.
Anthony Mackie plays Marcus Washington, a former Panther leader who mysteriously returns to Philadelphia to attend his father’s funeral. Where has he been all these years? In prison for his Panther activities? Or laying low because he was secretly an FBI informant? The ambiguity surrounding his recent past is a tension that drives much of the plot.
But the true mystery that Hamilton tries to unravel is far more ambitious. Moving past the grand narratives of Huey Newton, Stokely Carmichael, and Eldridge and Kathleen Cleaver, Hamilton turns her camera to the everyday lives of Panther members, people who valiantly fought for racial freedom but who now are plagued by the reality that they may have won certain battles, but ultimately they lost the war.
Mackie, who last co-starred with Kerry Washington in Spike Lee’s She Hate Me, is a thoughtful character actor with a distinguished biography: the soul-searching gay artist in Brother to Brother, the conflicted and contradictory lead in Tupac, and the cautious Sergeant J.T. Sanborn in the Oscar-winning Hurt Locker. Here, Mackie manages to restrain some of the explosive energy needed for those other roles to turn Marcus into a contemplative figure caught straddling the two worlds of his Black Panther past and his uncertain future.