In Tanya Hamilton’s debut feature, Night Catches Us, Anthony Mackie and Kerry Washington star as former Black Panthers who navigate the pitfalls of a post-radical life. It’s 1976 in Philadelphia’s Germantown section, and for much of the country, hope is on the horizon. Jimmy Carter’s speeches drift from car radios into the streets, and the lynching and church bombings of the civil-rights struggle are a fading memory. But for Washington, the wounds of the past are just beneath the surface, as close as the bullet holes under her kitchen wallpaper. Where she and her daughter eat breakfast, her Panther husband was shot dead in return for the murder of a police officer.
The Panthers have petered out, but their militant rhetoric remains, lying around like unexploded ordnance. Neighborhood boy Amari Cheatom, one of many strays Washington keeps under her wing, is too young to remember that the rifles and race-war slogans were in some respects window dressing for an organization preoccupied with meat-and-potatoes community activism. To him, picking up a gun is the only satisfying response to daily harassment from the city’s police force. The price of stock footage unfortunately prohibited Hamilton from dramatizing the profound antagonism between the Philadelphia police and its black residents, stoked by incendiary mayor (and former police chief) Frank Rizzo, but the background informs the movie’s sense that violence is only one wrong move away.
Washington has suppressed her radical leanings and now works within the system as a civil-rights attorney, but Mackie chose self-imposed exile, prompted by rumors that he snitched to the cops. His father’s funeral brings him back, but unfinished business keeps him in Germantown, not least his half-submerged romance with Washington. Hamilton drifts dangerously close to formula, and risks reducing her genuinely fascinating subject to a backdrop. But Mackie and Washington are too fine to let stock situations overtake them. Night Catches Us—the title comes from a Jamaican expression about staying after dark—would hit harder if its form embodied the tension between revolutionary and assimilationist strategies, but it’s clear Hamilton wants to reach beyond the arthouse to people who’ve experienced stories like hers firsthand. Even undeclared wars have their casualties, and the scars don’t always show.