There’s disappointment seeded into nearly every shot of Tanya Hamilton’s feature debut Night Catches Us. The opening credits are wall-to-wall history, black-and-white photographs of the Black Panthers during the 1960s, upright bodies adorned by black berets and leather coats, marching in formation down cop-lined streets. These are the ghosts of urban America, a flicker of righteous ferocity that still casts a spell today.
Writer-director Hamilton lets the Panthers’ spell wash over her story and the two neutered characters at its center. Trapped in a post-idealistic 1976, Marcus (Anthony Mackie) shows up at the start of the film in his family’s expansive, smartly kept-up Philadelphia house—shining black sedan and immaculate greenery out front, tasteful accoutrements inside—just in time to view his preacher father’s body. It’s clear immediately that there’s no love lost between him and his brother (Tariq Trotter), a dourly disapproving type in dark robes who’s decided to sell the house.
Another figure from Marcus’ past soon appears, swaggering up to the house with a practiced street-kid bravado. DoRight (Jamie Hector, as menacing here as he was playing Marlo Stanfield on The Wire) and Marcus once ran in the same Panther circles. Marcus’ four-year absence after a police crackdown left some bad feelings in the neighborhood and now he’s no longer wanted there. In DoRight’s coiled fury and the fog of resentment that’s thick in the corner bar where he holds court, the film indicates all the rechanneled resentment of onetime radicals whose cause has evaporated around them.
Still trying to fight the good fight is Patricia (Kerry Washington), a dedicated community organizer who lets the neighborhood kids run in and out of her house as though it were their own. This doesn’t sit too well with her daughter Iris (Jamara Griffin), who is not surprisingly drawn to Marcus when he starts hanging around, almost as though she can sense this is the man her mother was once in love with.
Night Catches Us grants these figures little forward momentum and little of the poetic melodrama promised by its gorgeous title. Marcus kicks around his old home, patching things up here and there, ostensibly to help with the sale. But really he’s delaying in the hope of making some reconnection with Patricia. In lieu of long recollections about their Panther days of rage, Hamilton continually intersperses news footage from the time period (including material that’s been overused in documentaries on the subject, thus diluting any personal connotation it might have had).
While Marcus and Patricia bob and weave about each other, and Iris watches the thin, haunted figure of Marcus with guarded fascination, we see glimpses of the Philadelphia neighborhood where nothing seems to have changed for the better. White police officers still interpret the law with overenthusiastic abandon, and poverty seems the standard condition. In the film’s closest stab at poignancy, Jimmy (Amari Cheatom), who scrapes by collecting cans off the street, falls into delusions of Panther glory. His desire provides fleeting moments of affecting despair (Jimmy’s broken-down bumblings recall Stan’s in Killer of Sheep), but like most everything else in Hamilton’s script, it comes to naught.
While Hamilton has a serene, clear-headed visual sense, Night Catches Us still seems wispy. She couldn’t have chosen a subject or setting more redolent with drama and import, but this drab, pause-laden, and indecisive romance is disappointing.