The Root Interview: Tanya Hamilton on 'Night Catches Us'

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Getty Images

Film director Tanya Hamilton isn't a household name yet, but the craftsmanship of her new film, Night Catches Us, will certainly make her one. The film takes a complicated look at the Black Panther Party in 1976 and examines how the political organization and the black power movement affected the intimate relationships of the people involved in it. The relationship central to the narrative is between Marcus and Patricia, played brilliantly by critically acclaimed actors Anthony Mackie and Kerry Washington

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Hamilton's film is based on the true story of a family friend, Carol Lawson-Green, who helped raise her. Lawson-Green went to prison for a year after she organized a protest at the White House following the Selma march and "Bloody Sunday." Hamilton was always interested in how these events shaped Lawson-Green's life, for better or worse.

The Root wanted to find out out just who this young woman is who has made such a provocative film that speaks to so many issues. We learned that she is everything such a complex work suggests she would be: cerebral, brilliant, humble, thoughtful, opinionated, complicated, clear, laser-focused, holistic, brave, afraid and courageous. Yes, we deduced all of this in less than an hour. In an industry that can be cookie-cutter, that is pretty refreshing.

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The Root: How is a first-time director able to pull together a cast that includes Kerry Washington, Anthony Mackie, Jamie Hector and Wendell Pierce?

Tanya Hamilton: It was timing and having a compelling screenplay. We were looking to make this film right when the Screen Actors Guild strike was going to happen, so the timing was right for them to consider a smaller project. I also think that the politics were particularly important to Anthony and Kerry because it connected them to characters who were layered in a way that would speak to African-American actors.

TR: The Roots did the sound track. How did you decide to work with them?

TH: I knew their agent at Paradigm, and it was actually her suggestion. I always liked them a lot, but I never thought they would be a possibility for us — you know, because they're the Roots. We all sat down and thought of how we wanted to have a three-tier approach to the music — present, past and future — which is important in the movie and needed to be reflected in the music. It was a collaborative process, and I can honestly say that the Roots were instrumental to this film because they are the glue that holds the sound together.

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TR: What is your all-time favorite film?

TH: Nicolas Roeg's Walk About. I love his earlier movies. They're upside down, crazy, weird. I like the space in those a lot. Raoul Peck's Lumumba [and] Sometimes in April. Mean Streets. I admire subtlety — films with much more of a '70s bent. That's the era of character, when character ruled.

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TR: What are your feelings about the challenges that black female directors face?

TH: There aren't a lot of black women making movies, which I find interesting in a way. I've blindly not really thought of it. I'm race obsessed, and that has been the lens through which I walk through the world. Making the film has made me think about my gender in a way I had previously not bothered [to]. Film is a very male-dominated world, and those positions are very protected. I think it's interesting in terms of what gets defined as a woman's film as opposed to a regular film. I haven't figured it out yet. I don't have a theory — at least not a smart one.

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TR: Do you have a theory on any subject that you'd like to share?

TH: One theory I have is about what I'd like to do as a filmmaker. We as filmmakers live in extremes. You have sort of this specialty world  — the Caucasian world that is enormous. [White filmmakers] go into the Hollywood world or the independent world and have so many options. You look at that world of African-American cinema, but it doesn't really exist. I know there are a lot of people who want to see films that defy class — films that live at the center, not at the extremes. We need to figure out how to make content for [moviegoers who want to see films that transcend class and race] and to market it so that people will come out and see it.

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TR: What's next for you?

TH: I want to do this thing about these two brothers who are Native American and one of them is half black. I'm very interested in that world and worlds that are underexplored. I am very interested in what we view as an old-world society. What does it mean to be modern and Native American?

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TR: Is there anything else you would like to add?

TH: Black filmmakers need to pay closer attention to how we market films. The biggest heartbreak is when you see how much work went into marketing your film and learn that so few people went to see it. No one involved in commerce wants to get involved in something that won't make money. We have to figure out a way to marry art and commerce. That is the secret to these specialty films. How do I deal with audience and marketing — how do I shove the two things together while maintaining the integrity of the film?

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Nsenga Burton, Ph.D., is editor-at-large for The Root, where she writes the Buzz section and contributes regularly. She is also a media scholar whose expertise includes race, class, gender and sexuality. Burton is an assistant professor at Goucher College and recently completed a chapter on South African soap operas for an anthology on black popular culture.

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