Night Catches Us takes place during the mid-‘70s in Philadelphia. The protagonist, Marcus (Anthony Mackie), is an ex-Black Panther, who comes back to town for his father’s funeral and is targeted by other ex-Panthers because he ratted out the cop-killing husband of Patricia (Kerry Washington), the only woman in the neighborhood who apparently likes him.
Marcus strikes up a rapport with Patricia’s daughter, filling in the role of the father he may or may not have had killed, and it’s not too long before we learn that the reason for Marcus’s stay is his deep passion for Patricia.
Patricia also plays surrogate mother to Jimmy (Amari Cheatom), a sort of street tough who’s had several run-ins with the police, some of them his fault, but mostly because the white police have a habit of harassing the neighborhood and Jimmy never knows when to keep his mouth shut. Jimmy idolizes Marcus’s former life as a Panther and is quickly heading down that same road that Marcus now regrets taking.
But Night’s ultimately not as much about the Panthers as it is about Marcus choosing not to repeat his past mistakes and find a better life through forging relationships instead of severing them. Jimmy’s the counterpoint, and his character works well at explaining why the life of militantism in the late ‘60s and ‘70s was so seductive—the police were brutes, and for a lot of angry young men, fighting back seemed like the only response.
And director Tanya Hamilton handles the material well. It’s not the deepest of stories, but the real strength is Hamilton’s eye for setting. Many period pieces go out of the way to announce that it’s not the present-day, but Hamilton knows that the best historical dramas keep the period details in the background and bring the characters to the forefront. The Black Panthers are of course a large part of the story, but their role is presented in newsreel footage and even animations. It’s a smart move because it doesn’t throw its decade at the viewer but still manages to capture the spirit perfectly.
But there are flaws. The film is slow to start, and each person’s connection to the other is left for us to figure out, which is confusing at first. The characterizations of whites is another problem. I don’t doubt the prejudice and police oppression blacks (and probably others) faced in mid-1970s Philadelphia, but they’re portrayed more as cartoonish villains than any serious menace.
The leads Mackie and Washington aren’t especially strong either, and many of their deeper conversations come off as awkward and stilted. But Cheatom is the standout as Jimmy. His story is crucial to the film, and he plays it so convincingly that while I felt alienated from the film at first, he had me riveted in the film 30 minutes.
Night Catches Us is an uneven film with some flashes of brilliance in its setting, music, and tone and some notable flaws in its actors and characterizations. For anyone who wants to seek it out, it’s worth seeing, but I think larger audiences should wait for Hamilton’s next film.