It’s been far too long since I’ve had the chance to see a new movie on the big screen, but I finally got to watch a film that skulked in and out of far too few theaters at the end of last year. Its title, Night Catches Us, makes it sound like a flick spawned of zombies and succubi; but, even if it’s far from a supernatural thriller, it is, in its way, a ghost story. Laid in the Germantown section of Philadelphia, in 1976, Night catches up with former members of the Black Panther party, which had been active five to 10 years earlier. The bicentennial setting yields a mordant, and perhaps incidental, morsel of irony: It sheds light on the mixed legacy of the Civil Rights movement, which, of course, relates to a broader dysfunction of the American Dream. American society, in this post-hippie/proto-disco groove, is in a rut. The riots and revolutions have been relegated to memory; President Carter, overheard on the news, has yet to lose his steam; and Reagan hasn’t yet turned that national frown upside down—and blandished the dimples right out of us with snake-oil smoothness. In this meantime, there’s a sense of fragile peace—or, if not peace, a certain languid immobility. And the first-time writer-director, Tanya Hamilton, who courted accolades from both the Independent Spirit Awards and Sundance, evokes it with the utmost delicacy.
The story starts when Marcus (Anthony Mackie) returns to town, like a noir anti-hero, to attend his father’s funeral. It’s been years since he’s been back from God-knows-where, and he’s hardly embraced by his former comrades-at-arms, who’ve mostly turned into hoods (Jamie Hector) or cops (Wendell Pierce). Patricia (Kerry Washington), a one-time flame who’s now a public defender, is the exception; she’s made a charity case of the entire community, as her young daughter Iris (Jamara Griffin) wryly sees it. Iris doesn’t know what happened to her father, who died when she was young. And neither do we, through most of the film’s duration, because the past only dovetails with the present after Hamilton has established the sense of time and place. The threadbare plot rests on a series of mysteries and misconceptions—most notably those of a 19-year-old wiseguy named Jimmy (Amari Cheatom), who makes a living picking up cans, and has been shafted by his penny-pinching boss for the last time. Jimmy sees Marcus—whose old allies have already branded him as a snitch—as a fogey and a sellout, to boot; but he picks up the Panthers’ torch without knowing where to shine it.
On Fresh Air, Hamilton told Teri Gross that Jimmy represents “someone who borrows somebody else’s history without really fully understanding where it comes from,” and that he’s “kind of like us a little bit.” I think this points to one of the film’s flaws. Patricia, the community organizer, chokes on her words as she tells her daughter that murder isn’t what the Panthers were about; but, apart from this emotional monologue and some well-chosen archive footage from the time, we don’t get enough of a sense of what they were about. In a film about how history is lost even to those who made it, it seems to me, at least, that the filmmaker is responsible for setting the record straight—and not falling into her own thematic trap. Especially if the movie is grounded in actual history and not an exercise in abstraction. Clearly, Marcus and Patricia are meant to be seen as fallen idealists who fought the good fight and failed for reasons that they couldn’t fully control; but how were their antagonists any different than the racist cop that belittles Jimmy? (I don’t want the movie to be didactic, but I don’t want to end up like Jimmy, either.) The Panthers’ enemies were both within and without—Marcus says that a violent Panther comic book was actually propaganda manufactured by the Feds. Was it? Or has even the paranoia gone underground? It hangs under the subtext as suggestively as the ghost-town imagery imposes itself on the surface. On T.V., Iris watches Olive Oyl being dragged off by a pair of specters who appear, then, just as quickly, vanish. And there’s a strangely tranquil scene in which the shoes of policemen slowly work their way toward a helpless man on a hill who’s soon to lose his life. The blurry specks of fireflies hover above the dusk-gray grass like levitating spirits.