I didn’t actually attend Night Catches Us, Tanya Hamilton’s acclaimed debut film, with the equally acclaimed poet Patricia Spears Jones. After learning about the Sundance favorite (and featuring it on the WVFC Wednesday Five), I couldn’t wait to see it: a movie about a neglected historical moment, by a woman director, all filmed in my Philadelphia neighborhood. I knew that the film–whose story follows a former Black Panther who returns home to bury his father and meets some unexpected ghosts–had some terrific actors, including some from the HBO series The Wire. From the trailer, it seemed as though their roles in this film built on the characters they created for that epic. And given director Hamilton’s background in fine art, I expected it would have good production values despite a modest budget.


But I still didn’t quite expect to love it as much as I did. I was prepared to stay and see it over right away, so I could keep looking at it and thinking about the people in it.

By the time the film opened in Philadelphia, I had already learned from Jones that she had seen it and been moved by it. Our conversation began after I told her that the movie  felt “like  both a painting and a poem.”

CL: It’s a week now since you saw it. What did you expect? What stayed with you?

PSJ: I was simply curious.  Had not heard about the film or what it was about until Greg Tate put up a lot of info on Facebook. I was pleased that this was going to be a film by a Black woman who has pulled together a fine cast.  But I also know that Black actors have so few opportunities to do anything interesting, that it is not that hard to get major Black acting talent. Other than Wendell Pierce doing his usual vaguely corrupt FBI man, everyone’s performance was very fresh.

I liked what you said about the scenes as poetic–what do you mean by that?

CL: The economy of every scene. Not only was every frame incredibly beautiful–really worth looking at–but the scenes didn’t waste words.  And when there was necessary content, it wasn’t explication: it murmured, but the murmurs built.

PSJ: But that seems to me to be what the best filmmaking is. Clearly this filmmaker has very clear ideas of about what she wanted to convey and how she wanted to convey it.  Also I enjoyed her disruptions–the use of animation, the documentary footage.  Otherwise the film’s tone might have been just a bit too composed, too “poetic.”

What stays with me about the film is its emotional intelligence and its strong visual sense of place.

CL: As someone who lives about ten minutes from where it was shot, I loved that Germantown looked as beautiful as it did. And what I’ve loved about this area since I moved here was how history breathes here — from the Revolution to the 1970s, when the Panthers fed people and churches organized successfully to stop redlining.

Did have any hesitations about the movie before you saw it?

PSJ: Why would I have hesitations?

CL: Maybe I was the one with hesitations. I kept thinking, it would have been so easy for a filmmaker to go overboard with the documentary stuff, too on-the-nose political or sentimental. Filmmakers I respect have teased that line, and sometimes crossed it. (See Oliver Stone.) But Hamilton’s thinking was entirely different–no less political, in its way, but in the way e.e. cummings or Picasso was, not Costa-Gavras.

PSJ: While I know the film is being packaged as being about the Panthers, it is really about what happens after one has been involved in intense radical action.  The movie, for me had a kind of tone similar to For Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000–Alain Tanner’s film about the French radicals of 1968.  While his film is fairly comic, it hinges on how people navigate that other side–keep some principles, let others go, and what that does to their relationships, their children, etc.

CL: I also agree that Wendell Pierce was mostly repeating himself.  But Jamie Hector–his work, and the director’s use of him, was sly in how it upended the expectations of people who knew him mostly from The Wire.  And that little girl, Jamara Griffin–she was unbelievable!

Jamara Griffin (left), and Anthony Mackie (right).

PSJ: I have never seen The Wire, so have no idea of how similar or different Jaime Hector’s work is. But all of the actors–the children, the old white guy, the crazy brother, the elder, even the ladies at the barbeque–did a great job. No one seemed out of place–too pretty, too funky, too 21st-century.

I do know that Anthony Mackie and Kerry Washington actually had real chemistry.  They looked like people who would end up in a serious clench.  I also enjoyed watching Mackie.  He reminded me of the young Montgomery Clift–his sense of his body and how he carried himself, both confident and just a bit uncertain. It’s not something seen in Black actors–either folks are swaggering all over the place or so beat down you wonder WTF was the filmmaker thinking.  But not here. Mackie’s Marcus is on the cusp of change. He’s got baggage, but he’s ready to move on; move out.  I loved that the film ends with Marcus saying “I want more.”

Anthony Mackie and Kerry Washington in NIGHT CATCHES US, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Washington’s Patricia is very complex.  The combination of anguish, anger, guilt and grit–she really does those sisters proud.  I went to see the film with Charlotte Carter, the brilliant poet and detective story writer–she has two detective series, and the second one is set in Chicago. The protagonist is a Black girl who is involved with radical causes, etc. Afterwards, we started talking about what people did back in the day. And I told her I met these women who were starting a business and had dinner with them. They started talking and I heard tales of getting folks out of the country, etc.  And it hit me who actually did MOST of the work for the Panthers–it was these women.  So Patricia’s story about the revenge attack and its consequences made sense, and the child actress who played her daughter took all of that in and knew that her mother had done what she done so that she could live.  Otherwise she would have lashed out at Marcus.  SMART writing; that emotional intelligence.

CL: There are so many ways in which–forgive me–this did feel a lot like a movie only a woman was likely to make.

PSJ: There were several things in the filmmaking that I understood quickly. One is that she really looked at how Spike Lee via Martin Scorsese composed Do the Right Thing–the exterior shots are as precise as the interiors. The female difference is the way in which the women look at the men, not only Patricia at Marcus and the “brothers,” but also her older suitor.  Patricia’s guile is transparent but understandable.  And the bathroom scene where both mother and daughter check Marcus out–will he stay or will he go?  I really can’t think of a Black male director taking the time to have that gaze.

Also, after sitting through Tyler Perry’s mediocre melodramatic version of Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls, where the only good Black woman was a suffering or up from suffering woman (at least she was not a dead woman), it was a pleasure to see Washington play a Black woman as complex as Patricia is. She’s a heroine and a traitor. A mother and an accessory to her husband’s murder. She protects people who put her and her daughter in jeopardy and she is still grieving. Now that is some serious complexity.

Night Catches Us is about the pivot. Do you go forward (Jimmy Carter’s paean to the future in his inaugural address) or remain in place?  Marcus has no family; Patricia has too much.  Fascinating.

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