The Root Review: 'Night Catches Us'
Starring Anthony Mackie and Kerry Washington, Tanya Hamilton's moving debut takes us back to 1976, when Jimmy Carter was about to be president, funk was king and the Black Panthers were trying to pick up the pieces.
The rest of the cast is equally talented: Washington plays Patricia "Pattie" Wilson, a former BP member turned defense lawyer whose husband was brutally murdered in a standoff with Philadelphia police; Jamie Hector (The Wire, Heroes) plays Dwayne "DoRight" Miller, the last standing -- and last gun-carrying -- Party member; while his compatriot from The Wire, the very capable Wendell Pierce, plays a conflicted black cop who hates racial profiling and yet endorses planting evidence on a suspect. Besides Marcus, the most compelling characters in the film are those literally growing up in the shadows of the black power movement: the Panther wannabe Jimmy Dixon (Amari Cheatom) and Patricia's young daughter, Iris (Jamara Griffin).
Both Cheatom and Griffin give solid performances as young people who know of the Black Panthers only through relics: pictures, comic books and rumors. Their characters, particularly that of Iris, are a welcome addition to the big screen. Arguably, the only other pop-culture example in which we've seen the history of the black power movement depicted from the point of view of a young black girl is Danzy Senna's groundbreaking novel, Caucasia.
Senna's novel, however, gives us an even more critical view of the racial politics and sexism of the era than does Night Catches Us. Patricia and Marcus' relationship hints at a gender equality, but we know from history that such equity was often absent in the actual Panther Party. Still, the film depicts just how complicated motherhood was for Party women, who too often were forced to choose between shooting "pigs" and saving their children. This is a struggle of which Patricia is all too aware. After Marcus moves in with her, her ex-boyfriend Carey tells her, "You're living in the past, Patricia. This house, this neighborhood, you're all fighting imaginary enemies."
But as the movie slows down history, highlighting the high price paid by black radicals and their families, Night Catches Us sometimes feels too slow, too silent, and leaves the viewer stuck, waiting for the inevitable -- and predictable -- tragedy that is the movie's climax. Veering into the realm of the slow drama, like HBO's Treme, in which Pierce also appears, Night Catches Us strives to keep the viewer engaged with period details, filling the plot's gaps with provocative performances, creative storytelling and brilliant backbeats. Scored by Philly's own legendary group the Roots (whose lead MC -- Tariq "Black Thought" Trotter -- appears in the role of Bostic Washington), the music is a potent reminder that much of the Black Panther Party's dissent and defiance refused to die with its leaders and would eventually live on in the sonic dissonance of hip-hop.
Salamishah Tillet is an assistant professor of English and Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania, as well as the co-founder of the nonprofit organization A Long Walk Home, Inc. Follow her on Twitter.