CINEMA: Panther Burns

NIGHT CATCHES US (2010, directed by Tanya Hamilton, 90 minutes, U.S.)

BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC The most unusual thing about the new locally-shot drama opening today, Night Catches Us, is its setting: northwest Philadelphia’s Germantown neighborhood in the year 1976. An African American enclave, this inner city setting in is not the concrete jungle most would associate with northern U.S. cities but a sprawling woodsy landscape offset by old stone and brick businesses and homes. Night Catches Us is the rare African America drama unconcerned with religion or drug-toting gangsters but it is instead a clever disguise for a old-fashioned Western.

There’s no better town to set such an updated Western than Rizzo-era Philly, known for the violence of its brutal policing; by 1979 a federal lawsuit was filed over the years of brutality and corruption in the force. Night Catches Us is set in it’s African American community just as the militant Black Panther party was deep in decline as a presence in the city. Our hero is Marcus Washington (the deeply soulful actor Anthony Mackie), a former Panther who returns from parts unknown after his father has passed away. The community is none to happy to see him, his Muslim brother (rapper Black Thought of the Roots) hisses with disgust in his presence and the remnants of the Panthers, who make their home in a run-down saloon, brand him a snitch. The event that gave Marcus this label is on everybody’s mind, but no one will talk about it and what happened in that moment of recent history is the mystery that goes unresolved till the film’s final act.

This is the first feature from writer/director Tanya Hamilton and the freshness of its perspective underlines the sad dearth of black stories outside of the Tyler Perry-derived melodramas or crime-driven action films. The Black Panthers, who are seen mainly in grainy, black and white news footage, linger as a spooky and/or hopeful memory that gives a deeper political context to the characters than you’d see in similar drama. I’d also attribute the film’s freshness to the presence of a woman writer and director. Although this story’s roots are in the Western genre, Kerry Washington’s character Patty is at its heart as well, and her complicated loyalties, between her young daughter and her rising passion for Marcus, make her far more than just a damsel in distress.

While Marcus’ journey to live in peace in this volatile setting unfolds in a somewhat predictable fashion, the people he meets and the tense terrain of this community under siege give the film a crackling energy of its own. Hamilton makes a nod to Philly history when she shows a police line-up with bar fighters standing at gunpoint while stripped of their shirts (should she have gone further and taken down their pants with Rizzo arriving with his nightstick in his cummerbund?). The films is further bolstered by a soundtrack by The Roots peppered with some rare soul gems, two from the resurrected crooner Darondo as well as Syl Johnson’s classic “Is It Because I’m Black.” As a mystery, Hamilton’s resolution is a little pat; I was wishing that the noble Marcus would have taken action in a more cinematic climax after remaining tightly coiled for so long. Despite these reservations, Night Catches Us is a unique and provocative work, and one that you’ll hope is a foundational work from which director Hamilton builds a sturdy career.

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