Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Night Catches Us

Set in Philadelphia in 1976, Night Catches Us is an expertly acted, tensely emotional drama about a fascinating part of our recent past. “The ‘60s and the ‘70s were really emotionally raw and violent times,” said director Tanya Hamilton in a phone interview last week (read the full interview). “I think now people are being destroyed now financially and emotionally, in much more sophisticated ways. There was an interesting kind of rawness then. People were just taken out.”

The excellent and usually underutilized Anthony Mackie brings his guarded intelligence to the central role of Marcus, a former Black Panther who fled after the death of a beloved comrade and the demise of the group. Marcus learns that he can’t go home again after struggling to reunite with his family and friends – though he makes strong connections with the dead man’s widow, Patricia (Kerry Washington), and her young daughter Iris (Jamara Griffin).

Patricia is respected in her community as a charismatic widow and nurturing earth mother, but her backstory turns out to be even more tortuous than Marcus’. Revealing her characters’ complexity was high on Hamilton’s list of priorities as she worked on her screenplay, which was hatched in the Sundance Filmmakers Lab but then had a decade to evolve before she pulled together the funding to start filming. “I think there’s an ideal that we place on people that sort of defies their complexity, because we want people we admire to be uncomplicated,” she says. “We like archetypes. But the reality is that people are layered.”

She also wanted to do justice to the Panthers, acknowledging the violence that now dominates their image without shortchanging the community development and political savvy that was an even more important part of who they were. “They were really incredibly bright people,” she says. “I think they were radicals in how they looked at the world and how they employed their visuals. They were intellectual radicals, and they knew how to manipulate and basically get a rise out of white people. Their message, I think, was pretty beautiful, but I think they have been maligned in that simplified corporate way that we get information and ingest information. I wanted to try to find the truest pieces of what they were.”

The film is also about the pain people experienced when the Panthers disappeared, as shown in part through Jimmy (Amari Cheatom), a parentless young man who gets swept up in his glamorized vision of the Panthers’ militancy. “He’s young, and they marked him indelibly at some point in his life and then they disappeared,” she says. “And he doesn’t have a safety net, because he’s part of the working poor and he doesn’t have a family. I wanted him to be a reflection of what happened when the Panthers were destroyed – both when they destroyed themselves and when external governmental forces destroyed them.”

Hamilton, who majored in art as an undergraduate and still does figurative painting, knew from the start how she wanted her movie to look. “I didn’t want anything garish. I didn’t want it to be primary colors. I wanted the film to be very layered and subtle, about subtext, and I wanted the visuals to be the same way.” But it took her a while – and the help of her husband – to find its name.

“I’m Jamaican, and there’s a saying in Jamaica, ‘Don’t let night catch you.’ I’d go out and my grandmother would always say, 'Don’t come back after dark – don’t let night catch you.' We were all sitting around when we were about to wrap [the film] and we were thinking about the title – cast and grips and everybody really chiming in. And my husband [Michael W. Pollock], who is a great fiction writer, came up with it.

“Night is a metaphor for one’s past. The whole movie is about these people trying to run in all these directions, trying to escape their pasts, which is obviously always going to catch up with you.”

Written for TimeOFF

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