The radical movements of the 1960s/1970s provides great grist for the creative mills, but far too few filmmakers have, to mix metaphors, drawn from this well. Writer/director Tanya Hamilton has in Night Catches Us, a sort of Black Power version of John Sayles’ 1979 Return of the Secaucus Seven and Lawrence Kasdan’s 1983The Big Chill. Set in 1976 Philadelphia after the heyday of the Black Panther Party, this film noir-ish feature depicts the fallout involvement in the Black liberation cause has on ex-Panthers and others.
In comments after the screening, Hamilton perceptively likened the Black Power struggle to a war, and as in combat, some of its survivors also suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. How does one cope after the revolution – especially if that revolution has failed? The beautiful Kerry Washington (whose credits include
Fantastic Four movies as the Thing’s blind girlfriend Alicia Masters) portrays an ex-Panther whose Panther husband was slain in a police raid back in the day. Washington’s character has only partially moved on: Her Patricia Wilson lives in the same house where her late spouse was gunned down with their young daughter Iris (Jamara Griffin). Patricia has left militancy – if not commitment – behind, becoming a civil rights attorney who now uses the law book instead of guns to resist the “pigs.”
When former comrade Marcus Washington (Anthony Mackie, who appeared in the 2008 films The Hurt Locker and American Violet) returns to the scene of the crime after years away from Philly, his best friend’s widow orders him to call her “Patricia,” not “Patty.” (The latter may be a reference to Patty Hearst, who had her own New Left misadventures, while “Marcus” may refer to the early 20th century Black nationalist leader Marcus Garvey who, like Hamilton, was originally from Jamaica.) Marcus is reputedly a “snitch” and his relationship with Patricia develops.
This stylish film incorporates archival footage of the beret and black leather-clad Panthers, who were fashion as well as revolutionary icons. When I asked Hamilton why there were no clips per se of Panther co-founder Huey P. Newton, she indicated that that footage was too expensive. (What price revolution?) When I pointed out that Amari Cheatom’s trigger happy character Jimmy, a post-Panther wannabe militant, bears a striking resemblance to Huey, she said this wasn’t intentional.
Wendell Pierce, who plays musician Antoine Batiste on the HBO New Orleans-set series Treme, co-stars in Night as a detective, proving that pigs come in all colors. The revolution may have been lost in Night, but police abuse of power, poverty and other social ills still affected Blacks in 1976 – as they continue to in the era of Barack Obama’s presidency. A thought provoking film that’s well worth seeing, Night Catches Us reminds us of a radical legacy, even if it provides no answers for African American liberation. Perhaps because, as the Panthers used to say, revolution is still the only solution.
Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based film historian, critic, author, freelance writer and wag who wrote the Oct. 26, 2001 Tucson Weekly cover story“Tinseltown’s Tombstone, A Look at the Real and Reel Wyatt Earp.”