By Nick Coston
December 19, 2010

The Black Panther Party has always been a fiery source of material for filmmakers looking to dig into the 20th century’s Americana. A 1960s militant group dedicated to the aggressive enforcement of American civil rights, the Panthers’ raised fists and black leather and virulent disposition lend themselves to the pursuit of an image that represents the stateside angst during the Vietnam War. Invariably, when Black Panthers show up on a movie screen, they are loud, they are mad, and they are probably brandishing a weapon.

So, if local writer/director Tanya Hamilton’s first feature, “Night Catches Us,” is a film about Black Panthers, it’s only natural to assume that the film is a scrapbook of gunshots, speeches, and rage. Indeed, “Night Catches Us” is about Black Panthers, but the year is 1976, and the former members have traded their berets for the Nation of Islam’s taqiyah head covering; tucked under their arm are no longer shotguns but briefcases. Whatever has come to be expected of the cinematic Black Panther is not present in Hamilton’s Philadelphia.

To this Philadelphia returns Marcus (Anthony Mackie, “The Hurt Locker”), a transient and former Panther who has come home to bury his father, and it’s instantly clear why he had stayed away for so long. He’s a snitch, and his old neighborhood isn’t lining up to welcome him back. The only one who isn’t eager to throw him back on the street is his former comrade Patricia (Kerry Washington, “The Last King of Scotland”). She hasn’t forgotten the kinship they once shared, and perhaps even owes Marcus a debt.

“Night Catches Us” is the film that countless young filmmakers want to make but are never allowed to. Dialogue is sparse. Non-diagetic music infiltrates and seizes every frame. Shots are long, agonizing, unwavering, irrepressible. Images are neatly framed. Actors are blocked as they would be on the stage. Mainstream films are greenlit, budgeted, shot, and released because the studio has confidence that the audience will feel comfortable watching them.

But there is no such escapism in “Night Catches Us.” There’s no fantasy in which we can engulf ourselves and forget how ugly or out of shape or bigoted we are. The very same people are on the screen and we have to look at them. In one scene, Marcus confronts the neighborhood’s de facto mayor, DoRight (Jamie Hector, “The Wire”), in a bar, the hub of DoRight’s turf. Heated words become fists and the two men along with most of the bar’s clientele end up sitting on the sidewalk, handcuffed and shirtless.

As Hamilton pans across the rogues’ gallery, it’s clear that these are not the caricatures of black masculinity to which we’ve been visually exposed for the past thirty years. They’re just guys, some paunchy, some scrawny, some scruffy, some with misaligned shoulders or man boobs or beer bellies. “Night Catches Us” is about black Americans, and how their experience is uniquely black. But they are people first. They are defined by their humanity before their color.

Anthony Mackie told the New York Times Magazine that his entire wardrobe was a size too small to encapsulate life’s ever-tightening grip on Marcus’s throat. Every closeup reveals a beard that isn’t quite there, a collection of vagrant hairs that don’t match or fit. The discomfort in his body pays off in his performance.

Hamilton wrote the script in 1999 and spent the next ten years seeking financing and distribution. When she finally acquired it, she had to shoot the film in 18 days on a shoestring budget. If nothing else, it is a testament to independence, on the screen and off. But to acknowledge only that would be selling short a phenomenal rookie directorial effort from a multifarious young woman with a bright future. Someday the world may remember a dozen Tanya Hamilton films before naming “Night Catches Us.” But her first foray will always be a powerful and genuine exposition.

Winter in Wartime (103 minutes, at area theaters) is Rated Rated R for some language.

Nick Coston is a DC native and 2010 graduate of the University of Michigan, where he covered film for four years at The Michigan Daily. He has been active in film production and coverage for nine years. He currently works in the office of U.S. Representative John Dingell of Michigan’s 15th congressional district. His favorite film is Michael Mann’s Heat (1995).

John Hanshaw

John Hanshaw

founded WFI in the Fall of 2007. He has worked in film and television for over ten years at such institutions as NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation), PBS and most recently National Geographic. He has degrees from Amherst College, Cambridge University, and GW Law.