*** This review may contain spoilers ***
One of the problems with many of the indie films out today is that the screenwriters have a great deal of trouble developing an organic, inter-connected plot. I'm pleased to report that Tanya Hamilton, writer/director of 'Night Catches Us', the new inner city drama set in 1976 Philadelphia, has no such problem. What's particularly impressive about Ms. Hamilton's skill as a screenwriter, is that she's able to juggle a multitude of characters, connecting them at the same time to a story that spans over a decade in time. Even better, Hamilton has a prescient, balanced view of race relations in America. She doesn't take sides and adroitly points out both the strengths and shortcomings of the various players on each side of the racial divide.
Hamilton's clever plot revolves around the return of former Black Panther, Marcus Washington (played by Anthony Mackie, in an excellent, understated performance), to his old neighborhood. Marcus is not your typical knight in shining armor protagonist, as he has a checkered past, having just gotten out of prison for selling guns. His father, a successful preacher has just passed away, and his brother Bostic, now a Black Muslim, regards Marcus as a troublemaker, and bars him from staying at the family home, which has just been willed to him. Marcus has even bigger problems with his old Panther buddies, particularly 'DoRight', now a gang leader, who calls him a 'snitch' and blames him for the death of an old Panther buddy, killed by the police. It seems that DoRight's buddy was married to Patricia, who Marcus was involved with years earlier.
Patricia is also a complex character. She's now an activist attorney for the black community and is raising her nine year old daughter, Iris, on her own. She can't say no to her ne'er-do-well brother, Jimmy, who collects and sells cans to survive and also has a big chip on his shoulder toward the police. Along with Jimmy, Patricia now invites Marcus to also stay in her house; as a result, her live-in boyfriend packs his bags and leaves. At first, Patricia will not tell Iris anything about what happened to her father but eventually it's revealed that after murdering a cop in retaliation for the murder of two Black Panthers, he was given up by Marcus to the police in order to prevent Patricia from being arrested and Iris taken into the foster care system.
The plot thickens when Jimmy picks a fight with some cops and Marcus and Iris are on the scene witnessing the confrontation. Before that incident escalates, DoRight's henchmen fire shots at Marcus from a passing car; the police, believing they are under fire, chase the henchmen in their patrol car. As a result of this incident, a black detective, David Gordon, approaches Marcus and wants him to plant a gun at a bar where DoRight hangs out. In Hamilton's view, it's not only the white cops who are capable of resorting to illegal means to enforce the law. During this scene in which Gordon approaches Marcus, he also reveals that it was actually Patricia who gave up her husband years ago and not Marcus. Marcus opts not to plant the gun and informs DoRight of the police plot.
Just as Patricia recognized that her husband had to pay for his crimes a decade earlier, she comes to agree with Marcus that Jimmy is full or rage and needs to leave the home. Jimmy, now enamored with the Black Panthers after reading some old comic books about the Panthers that Marcus gave to Iris as a present, decides to take revenge on a white cop that harassed him. Jimmy buys a gun and shoots the cop while he's sitting in his patrol car. Patricia's home is invaded by cops during the manhunt for the cop's killer and Marcus is roughed up. Eventually, the police find Jimmy hiding in some bushes and kill him. The film ends with Marcus getting a new job out of state and leaving, as Patricia is unable to turn her back on her commitments to the community in Philadelphia.
Instead of resorting to flashbacks to explain the back story, Hamilton intersperses film clips from the 60s, giving us a taste of the atmosphere engendered with the rise of the Black Panther movement. The excesses of law enforcement are duly noted, especially when it's revealed that Patricia has been the subject of FBI surveillance. As noted above, the police are prone to use excessive force whether provoked or not. Hamilton also doesn't shy away from pointing out the scourge of black on black violence, which is relevant to our own times.
If the film has any shortcomings, it might be the decision to shoot it, in what appears to be high definition. I would have preferred to see the action shot on film stock or with a lens that recreates the era in which the film takes place. Even though this was supposed to be 1976 Philadelphia, it just didn't appear that we were watching scenes from that era. And it seemed rather abrupt how Jimmy shoots the police officer and then is killed in turn. I would have imagined that he might have hooked up with others before deciding to kill the officer or at least formulated some kind of plan of escape. I suppose we'll have to be satisfied with the explanation that this was an impulsive act of a mentally unbalanced young man.
I've seen quite a number of independent films nominated for a Spirit Award so far this year, and I must say that 'Night Catches Us' is one of the stronger entries. I hope the powers that be in the film industry take notice of Tanya Hamilton whose considerable talent should be promoted by them in the future.