A former Panther (played by Anthony Mackie, left) returns home to his South Philly neighborhood in 1976 after a self-imposed exile and all his past experiences with the Black Panther Party, both good and bad, catch up with him in first-time feature filmmaker Tanya Hamilton's sure-handed period drama "Night Catches Us." The film is something of a creative homecoming for Hamilton, a Philadelphia native who began working on "Night Catches Us" at the Sundance Institute Screenwriter and Filmmaker labs.
Featuring a standout soundtrack from The Roots, picture perfect period details and an impressive cast, Hamilton shows impressive talent behind the camera. When it comes to storytelling, Hamilton stumbles at times and fails to completely capture the emotional potential of former Panthers trying to remain true to their ideals while leaving their radical pasts behind.
"Night Catches Us," beginning its platform release Dec. 3 from Magnolia Pictures in addition to iTunes and VOD, is too subtle for its own good and lacks a single, knock out surprise. Still, Hamilton makes a strong debut with the film and proves to be an independent filmmaker with an interest in mature characters and intimate stories. In today's era of CG entertainment and 3-D action, the arrival of Hamilton is something to appreciate.
Marcus Washington (Anthony Mackie) returns to Philly for a short visit to help bury his father but he's soon at odds with former Panthers who blame him for a past betrayal. Only his best friend's widow, Patricia Wilson (Kerry Washington), welcomes Marcus back. Marcus plans to stay in Philly just long enough to complete the funeral arrangements for his father. But bad decisions from his past return and make his quick visit more complicated than planned.
Anthony Mackie, best known as Sgt. JT Sanborn in "The Hurt Locker" and as Tupac Shakur in "Notorious," is taut and compelling as Marcus, a man trying to move forward but who keeps getting held back by his past. Mackie brings so much passion to his role it's a shame Hamilton keeps his performance in check.
Kerry Washington ("The Last King of Scotland," "Mother and Child") is heartfelt as Patricia, a former radical trying to work within the system to make a difference for the people in her working class neighborhood. Washington's best scenes occur when Patricia has heart-to-heart talks with her young daughter Iris (Jamara Griffin) trying to explain the social goals of the Panthers and their famous Ten-Point Program.
Veteran character actor Wendell Pierce (HBO's "The Wire) offers solid support as Detective Gordon, a local cop who complicates Marcus' visit.
Mackie and the rest of the cast are earnest but the best work occurs behind the camera from production designer Beth Mickle ("Cold Souls") who recreates '76 Philly via bellbottom pants, Afro hairdos, massive Cadillac sedans and countless small period details.
Hamilton, working with editors Affonso Gonçalves and John Chimples, draws inspiration from Spike Lee and mixes film and black-and-white archival footage of past Panther rallies with great skill.
Most dramas that address past radicals tend to lean on the epic side from French filmmaker Olivier Assayas' "Carlos," a five-and-a-half-hour treatment of Venezuelan terrorist Carlos the Jackal, to Uli Edel's more action oriented drama about Germany's Red Army Faction "The Baader Meinhof Complex."
Hamilton takes a more subtle approach, focusing on the chapter after the protests and police confrontations and telling a story of radicals desperate to move forward with their lives but unsure if they'll be successful.
Hamilton turns out to be too subtle with "Night Catches Us," a drama that fails to fully capitalize on its emotional potential.
Still, there's a lot she does well with her debut feature, enough for her next film to warrant plenty of attention.
Distributor: Magnolia Pictures
Director: Tanya Hamilton
Scriptwriter: Tanya Hamilton
Cinematographer: David Tumblety
Cast: Anthony Mackie, Kerry Washington, Jamie Hector, Wendell Pierce, Jamara Griffin
Editor: Affonso Gonçalves, John Chimples
Production Designer: Beth Mickle
Running Time: 90 minutes
Producers: SimonSays Entertainment, Gigantic Pictures, Magnolia Pictures
Rating: Rated R
Release Date: December 3, 2010