During the Civil Rights movement, there was a rise of police brutality in the United States. In 1966, a California man named Bobby Seale formed the Black Panther Party to try to reduce or end that brutality through organized complaints, political action and neighborhood watches, often armed neighborhood watches. After two years, the Black Panthers had organizations in every major American city, including Philadelphia. Yet, by 1976, the Black Panthers had practically dissolved as a national party.
Night Catches Us not only gives us a glimpse into how and why that Black Panthers era came to an end but also a glimpse into the black experience of the time, which is still unfortunately quite applicable to today.
Night Catches Us was released on DVD and Blu Ray on Feb. 1, 2011, the day that marks the 35th anniversary of Black History Month. It's the perfect film on video to kick off this celebration. Except, Black History Month isn't really a celebration, and celebration isn't really the word to describe this movie. It isn't celebrating the Black Panthers or holding them up as some kind of paragon. This film merely helps us to understand what was going on in relation to the Panthers and to young black people at the time. On the DVD and Blu Ray, Special Features will have Deleted Scenes, including an Alternate Opening and Ending. You'll also find Behind the Scenes footage with a HDNET special as well as Interviews with real Black Panthers, including Bobby Seale.
Listening to Seale, it's interesting to note the similarities between him and the main character of this movie, Marcus Washington, played by Anthony Mackie (The Hurt Locker and Million Dollar Baby). Mackie gives a performance that could draw comparisons to Seale but not for the militant rebel that some might think him to be. Here, Marcus is a tough and strong man. Yes, he cares more about defending the people he loves but not by merely lashing out at a system that is unjust and unfair towards hi, or merely lashing out at white police officers.
Anthony Mackie's character of Marcus Washington in this film faces a predicament that many young, black men have faced not only in films going back to the 1970s but in real-life situations all across the country. Should he stay in his present circumstance or should he go? Should he try to improve the situation around him or should he try to improve himself? Should he linger or should he just leave?
When Marcus returns to his family home in North Philadelphia for his father's funeral, that question is first put to him by his brother Bostic, played by Tariq Trotter (of the music group "The Roots"). His brother wants to sell his father's house and Marcus doesn't. Marcus wants to stay and fix the house but his brother wants to let it go for the money.
Eventually, Marcus spends time with a woman for whom he has romantic feelings. Her name is Patricia and she was also very much involved with the Black Panthers. In fact, Patricia's daughter is Iris, a little girl whose father was a former member of the Black Panthers. Iris' father named Neil is now dead and there is controversy over his passing.
DoRight, who is a remnant of the Black Panthers in North Philly, blames Marcus for the death of Iris' father who was killed by police. DoRight, played by Jamie Hector (Heroes and The Wire), believes Marcus snitched on Neil, thus betraying the Panthers. This is seen as a high betrayal because Marcus was himself a member, but he like Patricia didn't like the direction it was going, specifically the direction that Neil was going.
There are those who think the demise of the Black Panthers was a result of the co-mingling of the criminal element within the party's ranks and the intrusion of people like drug dealers or illegal gun users. You see through characters like Jimmy, a young black man who is unemployed, trying to make money off the streets, not having luck and constantly butting heads with cops, how such a young man could become pulled into criminal activity. DoRight represents the extreme example of that.
DoRight walks the line between Black Panther and black criminal. Marcus sees this and doesn't want to be apart of it because the line is very blurry. He cares about DoRight but realizes how blurry that line is and doesn't want to end up on the wrong side of it, which is possibly what happened to Iris' father.
Writer-director Tanya Hamilton accomplishes a great sense of neighborhood. Probably with very little set dressing, the real-life, Philadelphia neighborhood she and her crew used was most likely the same as it was in 1976 as it is now, but slight touches here and there like archival black-and-white footage take us back in time. It's really the breathing room with which she gives her actors to perform that is the most remarkable. Every actor here link the past and present almost effortlessly. All of them make us feel like we are right there in that time with them.
Five Stars out of Five.
Rated R for language, some sexuality and violence.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 30 mins.