In the mid-‘70s, as America dealt with the Watergate scandals, the oil crises, tumultuous race and gender relations, and the catastrophe of a war lost in Vietnam, optimism wasn’t exactly a buzz word. Indeed, it wouldn’t be long before the new president, Jimmy Carter, would make an infamous speech to the nation about the gathering culture of malaise that threatened to loose the United States from its moorings.
The ‘70s (and perhaps this has become too much of a cliché) are often recalled as a dark time, a nauseous hangover following the drunken bender that was the ‘60s. If the decade that preceded them can be characterized by the rise of a generational politics of dissent and a widespread cultural awakening, few have tried to imagine the ‘70s in that light. Indeed, the ‘70s appear to be more like what happens when idealism fades to realism, and when the youthful energy recedes into grown-up responsibility.
In Night Catches Us, the extraordinary new film from first-time writer-director Tanya Hamilton, this context feels both inescapable and crucial. Set in Philadelphia in 1976, and intercut with audio from Carter’s inaugural address, this is a film profoundly concerned with the idea of the ‘70s as a transitional, almost liminal era, an uncertain moment between the earnestness of Black Power activism and the rise of Reagan.
Kerry Washington (The Last King of Scotland) plays Patricia, defense attorney and widow to a Black Panther gunned down several years earlier by police after a tip-off from his best friend Marcus. Despite the fact that she is raising her nine-year old daughter in the same house in which her husband died, Patricia flatly refuses to discuss the past. Her new boyfriend, a middle class lawyer with political aspirations, seems to represent the lengths to which she is willing to go to move on. But, the past is hard to quell, and when Marcus (The Hurt Locker‘s Anthony Mackie) drifts back into town after a four-year absence, the pot bubbles over. While Patricia (Marcus stubbornly calls her Patty, the name by which she was known in the ‘60s) tries to deflect questions from her daughter, protect Marcus from ex-Panthers out for revenge, and to manage her own emotions, her teenage cousin becomes enamored of yesterday’s heroes and decides to emulate their brand of revolutionary violence.
In this stirring meditation on the trauma of defeat and disappointment, everyone is defined in some way by his or her relationship to the now apparently absent political activism of the late -‘60s. The Panthers have all moved on—some to gangsterism, some to white collar jobs, some to oblivion—and the only person in the neighbourhood who seems willing to engage with their old identity politics is branded a fool for not knowing any better. Indeed, his tragic idealism provides the film’s real emotional and narrative arc.
A thoughtful, slow-moving, and profound work of art, Night Catches Us is among the best films of 2010. Though it shares much in common with the historical (black) social dramas of Mario Van Peebles or Spike Lee, it feels more powerfully influenced by ‘60s-era Bergman, especially in its dogged refusal to sentimentalize. The result is a hypnotic realism that is quietly devastating.
As the spare story unfolds (this is a marvel of economical storytelling), we learn about the characters in snatches and grabs. There is little in the way of here-is-what-is-happening-type exposition, and almost no obvious plot set-pieces. Instead, we have a human drama about moving on from tragedy, and the impossibility (or is it the folly?) of wallpapering the past. Featuring superb performances from Washington and Mackie, a funky score from the Roots (though a smattering of the El Michels Affair’s instrumental re-workings of old Wu Tang numbers comprises much of the soundtrack), and backed up by some rousing work from The Wire alums Wendell Pierce and Jamie Hector, Night Catches Us deserves far more attention than it has received.
This DVD boasts a number of interviews with former Panthers and activists (including Bobby Seale), deleted scenes and other goodies. The interviews are worthwhile, though they suffer from some frustratingly shaky camera-work from time to time.