Thursday, September 02, 2010

Night Catches Us: Always Black, No Longer Panthers

Tanya Hamilton's debut feature Night Catches Us stars Anthony Mackie and Kerry Washington, two of my favorite working actors. They're also actors who are frequently underutilized in the films they're in. Mackie has of course been getting some great roles the past few years with Half Nelson and The Hurt Locker, but they're rarely leads in the films they're in. The film takes place in Philadelphia in 1976. Mackie and Washington are ex-Black Panthers, and Mackie has just returned from a sort of forced exile from the neighborhood after he allegedly snitched on another Panther 4 years prior. The film is very adept at connecting the politics of the time (after the Civil Rights movement, before black urban culture became mainstream) to the personal story of these characters whose lives are so well observed and filled with detail. The Roots provide a lot of the music for the film (a lot of it from their excellent new album How I Got Over), which mixes period music with more modern sounding hip hop that's greatly indebted to 70s Soul and R&B, and Black Thought even shows up in a supporting role. There's a great subplot involving a neighborhood kid increasingly frustrated by the police and angry that he missed out on the cultural revolution that people 5 or 10 years older than him participated in, slowly devolving into a militant is very strong and one of the best things in the movie. Newcomer Amir Cheatom handles the role with intensity and focus. If enough people see this, I think you could easily call it a star making role.

I like the film a great deal, and it's ultimately very powerful, but it has a characteristic I find typical of films that were developed through the Sundance Institute (which this film was in 2000, it took 9 years to get it made), which is that a lot of the rough edges of the script seem to have been smoothed over in the development process. For example, the script was original called Stringbean and Marcus. Marcus is Anthony Mackie's character, and Stringbean was presumably Kerry Washington's. In the finished film, her character's name is Patricia, but he calls her Patty, something that she's displeased by. That would make more sense if he called her Stringbean, but that's the kind of thing that can get taken out when you go through the Sundance Lab. I felt similarly about a film called Sin Nombre from last year that went through the Lab. Like that film though, I'd definitely like to see what writer and director Tanya Hamilton does next, because at the very least this film shows a lot of promise.