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.
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.
Salamishah Tillet is a rape survivor and co-founder of A Long Walk Home, a nonprofit that uses art to end violence against girls and women. She is also an associate professor of English studies at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of Sites of Slavery: Citizenship, Racial Democracy, and the Post-Civil Rights Imagination. She is working on a book about civil rights icon Nina Simone.