By Don Simpson | December 3, 2010
Director: Tanya Hamilton
Writer: Tanya Hamilton
Starring: Kerry Washington, Anthony Mackie, Novella Nelson, Thomas Roy, Ron Simons
It is the summer of 1976 and Marcus (Anthony Mackie) rolls back into Philadelphia after having cut off all communication with his family and former Black Panther comrades since his hasty departure four years prior. Though it only seems natural that Marcus would return to his family’s home in the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia not for the Bicentennial celebrations but for his father’s funeral, suspicions regarding his motives and agenda fester throughout the community nonetheless. The most displeased about Marcus’s reappearance are his Muslim brother, Bostic (Tariq Trotter), and the local Panthers’ new leader, Dwayne (Jamie Hector). Then, there are the local police, led by Detective Gordon (Wendell Pierce), who tail and harass Marcus to no end. Someone even has the audacity to spray paint “SNITCH” on the side of the black Cadillac that Marcus just inherited from his father. No wonder Marcus left this place in such a hurry!
The one and only old friend and comrade who seems to be pleased with Marcus’ reemergence is Patricia (Kerry Washington). Considering it is Patricia’s husband (with whom she has one daughter, Iris [Jamara Griffin]) who the local Panthers suspect Marcus of snitching on — making Marcus responsible for his murder (running away immediately afterward only made Marcus seem more guilty) — there is something unsettling about her kind and welcoming nature towards Marcus. Then again, Patricia has grown up to become a do good lawyer and can afford to take care of her friends, neighbors and clients. Maybe this is just the way she is? Or maybe she is in dire need of a good father figure for her daughter?
The Panthers, under the leadership of Dwayne, are sliding downward into the realm of petty criminality and senseless violence; while Patricia’s dim-witted cousin, Jimmy (Amari Cheatom), daydreams about being a cop-killer like the Black Panthers in the comic books. As the cycle of violence that Marcus escaped four years ago bubbles once again to the surface we are left to ponder whether or not Marcus and Patricia will ever be able to shake their militant past. The image of the wallpaper — which hides their violent past — peeling from the wall might be a bit heavy-handed, but the metaphor works just the same.
The setting of Night Catches Us is Mayor Frank Rizzo’s racially polarized police state in Philadelphia. Rizzo has a very bitter and jaded history with black militant groups in Philadelphia, such as the Black Panthers and MOVE. While police commissioner, Rizzo’s police force raided the Philadelphia offices of the Black Panther Party (one week before the Panthers’ “People’s Revolutionary Convention” at Temple University); and while mayor, the Philadelphia police raided the MOVE house. (Of course Rizzo’s police raid of the MOVE house, though quickly escalating to violence, pales in comparison to the 1985 police bombing [while Wilson Goode was mayor] of the MOVE house — which resulted in 11 deaths [including 5 children] and the destruction of 65 homes.) Then, there is Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner. Abu-Jamal helped form the Philadelphia branch of the Black Panther Party and became their “Lieutenant of Information”; later, during his career as a radio journalist, Abu-Jamal gained notoriety for giving exposure to the trial of the “MOVE Nine” who were charged with the murder of police officer James Ramp (who was killed during Rizzo’s police raid of the MOVE house). Abu-Jamal was an archenemy to Rizzo, and he sits on death row because of it.
The archival footage from Black Panther rallies of yesteryear function as a reminder that things have probably become much worse by the time 1976 rolls around; the Panthers have become a mere shadow of what they used to be, de-evolving into a self-destructive gang of no good thugs and hoodlums. But don’t fret, we hear the hopeful soundbites of presidential candidate Jimmy Carter talking about the dawning of a new era…maybe Carter will fix everything!
My only criticism — and its nothing but personal — is in the quality of the image. Shot on the Red One camera by cinematographer David Tumblety, the images are bright and crisp renderings of a quickly decaying neighborhood. Philadelphia circa 1976 appears in my mind, however, like something akin to Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep: 16 mm black and white film stock and gritty as all hell. (Of course I was not quite four years old during the summer of 1976, and my family rarely ventured into Germantown, so what do I know?) I will say that the gorgeous soundtrack (courtesy of The Roots) makes up for any problems I have with the capturing of the image.