There are few organizations more identified as the embodiment of The Black Power movement of the 1960's and 1970's than The Black Panthers. Although the group went beyond the political, pushing for economic justice as well as cultural and community development, the standard image in the minds of most is dozens of stoic young black men and women in berets and leather jackets holding AK-47's. Five decades later this image illicits pride, and even a longing for those days to return, in some. For others it conjures up all manner of negative emotions ranging from confusion to disgust to anger.
It's into this space comes Tanya Hamilton's Night Catches Us.
Set in the mid 1970s, just as Jimmy Carter has been elected president, Hamilton's debut centers around Marcus (Anthony Mackie). A former member of the Philadelphia Panther Party, Marcus left town years earlier after rumors started circulating that he had turned police informant. Home to bury his father, Marcus has come home to a neighborhood that feels betrayed, abandoned, and after his sudden disappearance, convinced of his guilt.
Although nearly everyone in the neighborhood, from Marcus's brother to the current head of the Philadelphia Panthers, Jamie Hector as 'Doright' Miller, is either cold or outright hostile towards him, Marcus has at least one friend left in Patricia (Kerry Washington).
A former Panther herself, and the mother to a young daughter, Patricia lives a life halfway between the revolutionary she was and the lawyer she's now become. Refusing to totally abandon her old life, she runs a version of the Panthers' children's breakfast program on her own dime. Her advocacy is a point of contention between Patricia and her live in boyfriend, a lawyer who works for the city, and believes she should focus on her own family first.
Although Marcus will neither confirm or deny if he was the informant--his own barely contained anger doesn't help his cause--most find Patricia's willingness to welcome Marcus back troubling, as whoever the informant was, they were directly responsible for her husband being slain by the cops.
Refreshingly, Hamilton doesn't concern herself too much with answering the question of who the informant was. Instead she focuses her energies in critiquing the disconnect between the promise of the Panther Party of the 60s and the reality of Philadelphia a decade later.
Like a ghost town, with few people walking the streets, Hamilton and her production team create a neighborhood in economic decline, a decline that would plague urban neighborhoods for decades.
In Patricia, Hamilton presages the conflict that arose between the African American middle class that started taking advantage of new opportunities open to them in a post Civil Rights America, and those African Americans that felt left behind and ignored.
And in Patricia's cousin Jimmy, a young man enamored with the militant side of the Panthers, Hamilton touches on how much of the Panthers' message of community and economic improvement became the least remembered elements of it's legacy. A point further reiterated by Doright who seems more concerned with living in the Panthers' past and focused on revenge than dealing with his neighborhood's ever declining present.
If there's a weakness in the overall story, it would be that as a character driven portrait of a neighborhood, Night doesn't contain much dramatic drive. Hamilton tries to utilize Jimmy's constant battling with a racist Philadelphia cop as a narrative spine, however the climax of that arc does more to undercut the subtle and delicate world she's created than add any believable tension. And it doesn't help that both Jimmy and the cop are one note characters who seem only to exist to antagonize each other.
Still, Night's end point feels not only emotionally logical, never resorting to drawing any firm conclusions, it reinforces that while movements may come to an end, the issues and complex questions they bring to light rarely do.
Reviewed at the 2010 Sidewalk Moving Picture Film Festival