Iris: “When face to face with a policeman, I should keep my mouth shut, say nothing unless asked, answer questions with ‘yes, sir, no, sir,’ unless they violate my civil rights. Then put my hands on my head where they can clearly see them and ask for a lawyer and never make sudden moves and never get angry.”
The above words are recited by the young daughter in the climax of the powerful “NIGHT CATCHES US” (2010) which marked the debut of writer/filmmaker Tanya Hamilton. Iris is reciting from ‘The Talk’ back to her mother — and that name refers to the conversation Black parents have with their children, in which youth are taught to de-escalate encounters with authority figures. Director Hamilton’s elegant narrative deals with the reverberations of the 60s civil rights movement and the Black Panther Party in a suburb of Philadelphia in 1976, the year of our country’s bicentennial. Wisely, Ms. Hamilton understands that those aftereffects continued well into the year she finished her work. It’s now 2021, and its resonance feels louder. It’s compelling, made particularly more enticing by nuanced work from now-superstars Anthony Mackie and Kerry Washington. This would make nice companion viewing with the recently released “Judas and the Black Messiah” (2020). Although they have different approaches, both cover similar territory, including the role of informants used by the FBI to reshape the public perception of the Black Panthers.
Former militant Marcus (Mackie) is returning home to his father’s funeral. He was previously incarcerated for gun running charges and after finishing his sentence he roamed around the country aimlessly. His brother Bostic is now a Muslim and holds a resentment towards Marcus. He tells him he’s selling the house, and he can’t stay there for long.
He’s also not welcomed by the rest of the neighborhood. They think he snitched on one of their own Panthers, Neil, who was eventually shot by the police. DoRight, a previous colleague is now a local gangster and seethes at the thought of Marcus’ being back. Police officer David Gordon (ever reliable Wendell Pierce) sees in Marcus a possibility to entrap DoRight.
Still living in the house in which Neil was gunned down is his widow, Patricia. She’s a civil rights lawyer, and raising her young teenage daughter who is confused about what really happened in her house. Her young cousin Jimmy, who makes a living picking up discarded cans, is harassed by the police and is enticed by what the Panthers stood for. The whole town seems to be dealing with a sense of trauma. Despite how they feel about Marcus, Patricia invites him to stay with them. She feels that he would be a good example for Iris.
Iris’ curiosity leads to the usage of archival footage–in which we get a lyrical feel for the political past–and also for animation, in which comic books distributed by the FBI to misinterpret the Black Panther Party’s work come alive. There’s one striking clip from an old Popeye rerun in which Olive is being dragged through a boat by ghosts who eerily look like they’re wearing Ku Klux Klan hoods. It is Iris who starts to understand the weight of the past, not only on her mother but on her current state. She’s the one who notices the wallpaper in her living room, shoddily covering the bloodied wall where her dad was shot, and it is her who starts ripping it down.
Both leads are excellent. Mackie who up until this point had done great supporting work in “Half-Nelson” (2006) and in “The Hurt Locker” (2008) gets a role which takes advantage of his simmering energy. Washington shows us a veneer of composure that is hiding a great deal of pain and anger.
Hamilton’s command of the multi-layered material seems effortless. She’s aided by a production design that gives you a strong sense of the time period. The hip hop band “The Roots” do the terrific score that grounds the material in a sonic world of 70’s funk and soul.
This very rich, high level filmmaking deserves our attention.
Carey (Patricia’s boyfriend): “You’re living in the past Patricia. This house. You’re all fighting imaginary enemies.”
Available to stream on Amazon Prime, fuboTV, The Roku Channel, Hoopla, Vudu, Tubi, Crackle and Pluto TV. Available to rent on Google Play, Apple TV+, Amazon Prime, YouTube, FandangoNOW, Vudu, Redbox, Apple TV, FlixFling and Microsoft.
Written and Directed by Tanya Hamilton
Starring Kerry Washington, Anthony Mackie, Jamie Hector, Wendell Pierce, Amari Cheatom, Tariq Trotter, Novella Nelson, Thomas Roy and Ron Simons
Writer and Director Tanya Hamilton on Bringing “Night Catches Us” to the Screen
Born in Jamaica and raised in Maryland, director/writer Tanya Hamilton used what she knew best to craft her debut feature, “Night Catches Us.” Inspired by her mother’s close friend who in 1965 took part in organizing a sit-in at the White House in protest of the violence in Selma, Alabama, Hamilton wrote a story to do that woman – and the subsequent aftermath of her ordeal – justice. “I think that in crafting this world and these characters I really tried to look at all the contradiction in this woman who was essentially my second mother,” Hamilton told indieWIRE, while in New York ahead of the film’s December 3rd release. “I wanted to look at where the cranky woman I knew came from, and how she started.” (indiewire.com)
…“I think the long and short of it is, I like a lot about that period. I think there’s something tragic and romantic about it. In many ways, it’s looking at this distinctly African-American period and distilling it through my detached foreigner eyes. My mom had a friend who did a sit-in at the White House and went to jail for six months. I’ve been going through all of her letters to prepare for this talk. And I look at all of these letters to her mom. She goes in with this great enthusiasm. She was my great inspiration for the Patty character. The letters are so optimistic: “We’re not going break any rules.” Then there is a letter midway through, when they’re sequestered in their cells, and she was very upset about it. There was a seven-page rant about how they had been lulled to sleep by non-violence. Even though I respect the Black Panther movement for what they put back into the community, I wanted to look at that progression in a nutshell. What propels you as a youth to feel optimism? What inspires you to feel bitterness and regret?” (interviewmagazine.com)
Writer and Director Tanya Hamilton on the Character of Patricia
“The women, I think they’re pretty fascinating. I mean I think that there is a very sort of interpreted as a I think a very male period, you know, sexy black men with guns kind of thing. But I think the women, a lot of the women I think were kind of the backbone. They were sort of like the, you know, talk about minutia, they were the workers and I find that sort of compelling. I liked the idea that the Patricia character had gone on to become a lawyer but that she was still bailing these guys out, you know, that she was still their advocate. She was still, you know, showing up when they had their various arraignments. And I was very in love with that character because I liked the duality that she sort of represented.
She comes from the rank and file of the party and she believes so truly in the essence of what the Panthers were in their true beautiful spirit. And that, you know, she’s with this other man who, yeah, represents I think a little bit of a different perspective. You know, she’s someone who believes that if he’s going to make any changes he’s going to make them from the inside and that she’s not living in the present and that she needs to grow up. And, you know, I think often that perspective I think is left out, and that it is in a way sort of not respected, that there were people who really dissented in their perspective on kind of what the Panthers were and why they were important. And so in my mind she’s the most complicated character in the film.” (npr.org)
Writer and Director Tanya Hamilton on Casting “Night Catches Us”
“When I first started casting, I was so naïve in a certain way. I don’t have that intuitive sense of “Oh, that actor’s perfect!” What do I know? But I knew people who were wrong for a part. I knew that [Patty] needed to be really African-American and ordinary African-American. Angela Davis was my physical model. With Marcus, it was harder. I knew, sort of, what I wanted him to look like. I knew he needed to be a man who had these two things in him, this great softness and kindness and still someone who ran guns… I knew Mackie is a guy who is capable of saying a lot by saying very little. I think Kerry Washington reminds me of all the girls I knew in high school. I think that’s a nice quality of being ordinary yet extraordinary in the same breath. It was a nice surprise.” (interviewmagazine.com)
About Production Designer Beth Mickle
Beth grew up in Douglassville, PA crafting short films with her brother, director Jim Mickle, before moving to New York to attend Columbia University. While in college she continued working on her brother’s NYU short films, ultimately leading to her career as a production designer for film and television. One of her earliest collaborations was with directing duo Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden on “Half Nelson”, which earned a Best Actor Academy Award nomination for Ryan Gosling. In 2009 she teamed with auteur director Nicolas Winding Refn on “Drive”, where she received an Art Directors Guild nomination for Excellence in Production Design. She worked with Refn again in Bangkok on “Only God Forgives”, which debuted at the Cannes Film Festival in 2013. She partnered with Ryan Gosling on his directorial debut “Lost River”, which premiered at Cannes in 2014. Other credits include “Focus”, “2 Guns”, and “Arbitrage”, as well as season one of HBO’s “The Deuce”, created by David Simon and George Pelecanos. Her other honors include being nominated for a BAFTA award for her work in “An Englishman in New York”, being recognized by Glamour magazine as one of the “Under 35” women in film to watch, and landing on Below-the-Line Impact Report for Variety in 2013. She enjoys working abroad and has experience working on location in Argentina, Russia, Thailand, the Dominican Republic, and throughout Europe. Beth currently lives in Hudson, NY with her partner, production designer Russell Barnes, and to this day she and her brother continue their creative films collaborations. (bethmickle.com) Mickle’s recent works include “Motherless Brooklyn” (2019) and most recently “The Suicide Squad” and “Dear Evan Hansen” in 2021.
About The Roots
Named one of the greatest live bands around by Rolling Stone magazine, the legendary Roots Crew has become one of the best known and most respected hip-hop acts in the business, winning four Grammys over the course of the group’s career. The ensemble most recently received a “Best Rap Album” nomination for its last studio release, “undun,” which brings its Grammy nomination count to 12. Additionally, The Roots has become the face of Philly’s “Fourth of July Jam,” an annual concert held during the holiday weekend featuring some of the biggest names in music, and “The Roots Picnic,” a yearly star-studded mix of musicians that has become a celebrated institution during summer festival season. The Roots is also the official house band on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” where Questlove also serves as the show’s Musical Director. (nbc.com)
About Writer and Director Tanya Hamilton
Tanya Hamilton is the writer/director of Night Catches Us, starring Anthony Mackie and Kerry Washington, which was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. The film was a finalist for the 2010 Humanitas Prize and winner of the Fipresci Prize at the Seattle International Film Festival for Best American film. Additionally, in 2010, Night Catches Us was named Best Screenplay by the African-American Film Critics Association and nominated for an Independent Spirit Award in the Best First Feature category. Later it was nominated for several NAACP Image Awards, including Outstanding Actor and Actress, Outstanding Independent Motion Picture, and Outstanding Directing in a Motion Picture. It was also nominated for Breakthrough Director at the 2010 Gotham Awards. In 2012 Hamilton wrote, directed and co-produced “Good Country People,” which was shot on location in Jamaica, as part of ITVS’s Women and Girls Lead initiative. A Sundance Institute writing and directing fellow, Hamilton is also a recipient of the coveted Pew Fellowship in the Arts. She is currently developing the web series I Can’t Sleep with ITVS, and producing her second feature film, titled “Skylarking.” (tanya-hamilton.squarespace.com) Hamilton has directed episodes of “Queen Sugar” (2016), “The Vampire Diaries” (2016), “American Crime” (2017), “Greenleaf” (2017), “Seven Seconds” (2018), “Black Lightning” (2018), “Love Is_” (2018), “Berlin Station” (2019), “The Chi” (2018-2019), “Scream: The TV Series” (2019), “Snowfall” (2019), “The Deuce” (2018-2019), “Godfather of Harlem” (2019) and most recently “Cherish the Day” in 2020.