In Night Catches Us, a film by Tanya Hamilton, Marcus, played by Anthony Mackie, comes back to Philadelphia after being away for ten years. His father has just died, and he has come back into a family struggling with the past. Marcus left, and his brother, who had to deal with his father, is resentful and wants no part of him. Young Jimmy, Patricia’s cousin, is resentful of the cops and thinks Marcus informed on Patricia’s husband, who was killed by the cops in an execution-style shooting in Patricia’s living room. Patricia, who is played by Kerry Washington, welcomes Marcus home, and Patricia’s daughter, Iris, wants to know what happened to her father.
There is enough stuff here to make a powerful movie. But what raises the stakes is that the film takes place in 1975, and Marcus and Patricia and several others of their friends in Philadelphia were members of the Black Panther Party, and what’s happening is that they are all trying to come to terms with their pasts, represented by the question of what happened to Patricia’s husband. Did somebody tell on him? Who? Why? Patricia says at one point, “That’s not what we were,” referring to the execution of a cop. But if not that, then what? And even more important for Marcus and Patricia now, How are we going to live now?
It is a deeply moving film which closely connects the racism of political Philadelphia, represented by the cops and their allies, both white and black, and the actions of the Black Panthers then, and the kids who would like to do what the Black Panthers did, now, with the poverty of their neighborhood and with the questions faced by Patricia and Marcus, What we are? And, How do we live now? It is a slow-moving, elegiac film, conveyed by slow quiet conversations, punctured by gunfire. At critical moments, the camera simply backs off and watches the water in an urban stream flow or the tangled vines of an urban jungle, blowing in a breeze. Long moments are spent as we watch the principals ponder their lives, staring off into the distance.
Tanya Hamilton has it exactly right. Life is interconnected, you can’t be on the streets of Philadelphia without knowing about poverty, the cops and the Panthers, and the fact that Patricia’s husband was executed, and that Marcus loved Patricia. To understand anything, you have to understand it all, and you can’t pick and choose, and you don’t really have the right or even the ability to make it pretty. Any of it. And yet, and yet, this is a beautiful film.