Night Catches Us
Dir. Tanya Hamilton.
Now Playing, In Limited Release.
Night Catches Us, Tanya Hamilton’s directorial debut, tells the story of Marcus (Anthony Mackie), a former Black Panther, returning to his old neighborhood four years after the disintegration of the movement and his personal life. In the midst of 1976, poor black communities across the East Coast looked much like the Philadelphia depicted by Hamilton. Stagflation made it increasingly hard for even those employed to get a living wage; police violence and repression were endemic, and in the aftermath of failed experiments in public school busing and an evacuation of working class whites to newly built suburbs, racial mistrust ran high.
The moment offers suspicious equivalences to the present day, but Hamilton worked for a decade to find funding, so maybe the metaphors are accidental. For certain, they’re unnecessary. The film reinvigorates the legend of the Black Panthers, while showcasing the scars left by their wounded idealism. It’s hard for many audiences to conceive of the promise the Panthers represented, with their 10-point platform to dismantle the racial and class inequalities of the United States of America, let alone the tremendous fear their militaristic brand of radicalism wrought within mainstream America. On May 2, 1967, the group executed the most successful (and legal) piece of political theater in American history, marching on the California Assembly to protest a bill (developed in large part to counter moves by black power groups to protect their communities) that would outlaw carrying weapons. As described by Harlem-based report and activist Gilbert Moore:
They came with .45-caliber pistols and 9 mm Lugers. They showed up with M1 rifles, America’s favorite companion in three wars. They came with .357 Magnums. (They say when a bullet from a Magnum hits you, you feel like you’ve been struck by lightning.) They came with 12-gauge pump-action shotguns. They came with bandoliers strapped across their chests … Six women and 24 men, all dressed in black, head to toe—black berets, black leather jackets, black pants, black shoes, or black combat boots.
In large part, Night Catches Us succeeds because Hamilton does not try to recreate the crazed hope that defined that moment—such tales seem too far-fetched to be anything but a Hollywood fiction. Instead, the Panther past provides the engine that keeps the film’s characters striving when it makes more sense to give up. This is not to say that Night Catches Us isn’t Hollywood. Only the taut, praiseworthy performances of the leads prevent the plot from becoming irredeemably sentimental. Night Catches Us’s minimal theatrical release is a clear bid for the awards for which the film deserves ample consideration.
Shot on Red One, the film glistens with the stylishness of the period. A boundless universe of tall, thin, young protagonists fill the screen, with The Roots playing behind them on the soundtrack. The wistful imagery fits uneasily with the police brutality, desperate hunger, and murderous rage—Patty (Kerry Washington), Marcus’s love interest and widow of one of the Panther leaders, strives to keep the ideals of the movement alive. Patty provides the daily free breakfasts—for which the Panthers became known—out of her house. She also holds potlucks for those awaiting bail on trumped up charges. Her life is a shrine to the halcyon days of the movement. Iris, her daughter, is caught in this world, and the camera’s gaze mirrors her perspective, a nostalgic imagining of a world that she never quite knew, and which may never have existed.
Iris is often mute, looking blandly at the wallpaper that covers a blood stain left behind on the night of her father’s death. The backstory is based loosely on the murder of Fred Hampton, an F.B.I.-orchestrated assassination that has been described as a northern lynching. Iris stands in for a generation inured to this repressive violence, and traumatized by the scars the wars of the ’60s (both foreign and domestic) left on parents. Though Patty is the hearth of her community, she’s cold to her daughter. Hamilton lets these character traits cancel each other out. In a transgressive move, familial love does not get privileged above community devotion. Romantic love is even less valued. “You’re all fighting imaginary enemies,” Patty is told by a middle-class beau on his way out of her life, tired of her ongoing appeals for his generosity. Washington plays this scene unemotionally, reinforcing the idea that Patty may have taken up with a comparatively wealthy man for the funds he might contribute to the cause. It’s a haunting suggestion, one that is never fully resolved.
“I think I went into [making the film] with the race factor at the front of my brain, never ever thinking of the female part,” Hamilton has said. “I never distilled the world in that way. But what I found in making the film was that it’s very much present. I think I was naive. I had never experienced the world in terms of gender this much.”
Yet the film works well as a prism on gender. Though it resolutely fails the Bechdel test (two adult female characters never talk to each other at all through the film, let alone about something other than a man), Night Catches Us displays the gender-specific traumas of being a revolutionary woman. Patty can never be just a warrior. Though Stokely Carmichael’s infamous statement, “The proper position of women in the movement is prone,” was said in jest (and as the best jokes always do, reflecting his deepest sincere beliefs) women were often relegated to doing the work of cooking, and raising the next generation of revolutionaries. Of course, the Free Breakfast Program was deemed by J. Edgar Hoover to be the most dangerous program run by the Panthers, which just reinforces how often fundamental change indeed comes from women.
The men in Night Catches Us can and do run off, commit suicide by cop, or drink and drug away the knowledge that life wasn’t supposed to be like this. Patty has to stay, trapped in the home where the cops shot her husband. Someone has to feed the children. It’s a powerful reimagining of the idea of women’s work, but it falls short of truly questioning gender roles.
When Marcus arrives, Patty asks him to stay, saying that Iris could use a man in the house. He stays, and makes himself invaluable fixing leaky faucets and taking Patty to orgasm. Y’know, men’s work. Conversely, Patty’s cousin Jimmy goes insane from his inability to provide for his younger brother. Jimmy works as a scrapper, collecting empty cans and struggling to get by while being beaten senseless by his own powerless anger. He feels abandoned by the Panthers who raised him, as well as by their movement. His idealization of lost militancy has consequences that are tragically predictable, but no less moving for their fatedness.
Interconnected betrayals were central to the failure of the liberation movements of the late 1960s—betrayals of idealism, betrayals of communities, and a betrayal of the citizenry by the U.S. government. Marcus returns to Philadelphia branded a snitch, but by the time he comes back, the fear of provocateurs has become far more generalized. “How do you know it was Marcus?” Patty asks Duane, the new community leader who has it in for Marcus, “It could have been you.”
Duane has no response. In the era of the F.B.I.’s COINTELPRO, suspicion became a flesh-eating disease within social movements, and Night Catches Us is the first film to attempt to grapple with the corpse left behind. COINTELPRO’s runaway success at dismantling the radical movements of the 1960s has consequences beyond the shattered lives of Patty and Marcus. Embedding provocateurs within left wing movements became standard practice. A wholly reasonable fear of government sponsored reprisal, and a mistrust within the radical organizations—where anyone could be a plant—stops most promising acts of dissent before they are attempted. It’s impossible today that 30 armed demonstrators could gather on the steps of the California state capitol. Or even 30 unarmed ones.
We live in a terrifying era of political backlash. The election of a black president instantaneously birthed a new movement of racist hatred (David Axelrod describes the Tea Party as “a grassroots citizen’s movement brought to you by a bunch of oil billionaires”) and the word activist has become synonymous with terrorist. Nonviolent environmental and animal rights protestors are being shut away in a growing number of secretive, high security prisons, nicknamed Little Gitmos. The repressive techniques perfected against the Panthers now amplify the chilling effect that silences dissent in contemporary America. But Night Catches Us reminds us that though the black berets and leather jackets are soaked in blood and fear has won the day, the work can and still must be done. Someone has to feed the children.
Sarahjane Blum knows Green is the New Red.