1976 was a volatile year; I know I lived it and remember it all too well. As difficult as it was in the South, it was difficult around the country, especially larger cities where riots and turmoil broke out. A lot was transpiring, and the remnants of the mid to late 60’s still lingered. All of the turmoil came back to memory with my recent viewing of Night Catches Us.
Night Catches Us is an Independent film that deals with the era from the perspective of the Black Community in the shadow of the Black Power movement and the Black Panthers. Directed by Tanya Hamilton, this film follows former Panther member Marcus as he returns to his community after being away for close to 4 years. There are reasons he has been away, and the secrets he has kept have many old acquaintances turning against him. Upon his return Marcus realizes the difficulties first hand and sees them all too clearly in the lives of those around him in his old Philadelphia neighborhood. Night Catches Us shows a side of the era that may be a surprise to many. That is a part of the intent of the film, not just show a differing view of history in a fictional way, but to address the horror that sometimes drives people to become who they are.
Night Catches Us is an independent film that has garnished a great deal of success, including admission into The Sundance Film Festival. It has also garnished praise from the NAACP and other groups. While an independent film, it is exceptionally directed, acted, and told. One of the best things about the film is not just the acting and story, but the locations and set design. The 1970’s, from the cars on the streets, to the dress and the furniture and other factors is replicated perfectly. For me it was like stepping back in time. This isn’t to say everything about the movie is done well, but as a whole I was pleasantly surprised. There are some jumpy edits, sound problems and continuance issues but they don’t detract much from the quality of the film. The only problem that could have been corrected to make the movie better was the development of characters.
While the characters could have been developed better, the viewer still finds themselves caring about them, especially the two principals, Patricia, (Patty) Richardson played by Kerry Washington, and Marcus Washington played by Anthony Mackie. Both of these individuals display wonderful abilities in their particular roles and Hamilton provides some wonderful direction to get them into their roles. While there is a great deal we don’t know about them, the fact that we want to know more is a tribute to the potential of the film.
One of the problems some will have with the film is the perspective given of an oppressive system and a negative presentation of the Philadelphia Police Department. Yet, history shows that many of these things existed not just in Philadelphia, but in many parts of the country. The oppression of people for whatever reason is something the viewer is forced to think about. Night Catches Us does a good job of showing that while there are injustices, not all people believed in fighting injustice with injustice. It also shows the perspectives of those who live in an unjust environment. It is easy to be critical of groups like the Black Panthers, but to never make an attempt to understand the injustice that existed that caused them to form does not solve the societal problem of injustice. One would be much better served to understand the entire story, and address the problems as well as those that would cause harm to others. Night Catches Us does a wonderful job at showing the potential for love, the desire for change in appropriate ways, and the societal issues that forced people to fight for themselves and their neighbors. As a person of faith, I am reminded of the concept to stand up for justice and mercy. Failure to do so often results in tragedy that could be prevented. This belief of not standing back and watching is addressed in virtually every religion on the planet; yet, many do stand back, doing nothing, and watching the injustice continue. I was reminded in my own faith of the saying; ‘that what you have done for the least of these you have done for me.’
While there were issues with the film regarding character development, and the movie could have been better, it is a rare recommendation where I will recommend the film based on the special features of the DVD, especially the interviews. While interviewing various members of the original Black Panthers and Black Power movement, I was educated in ways I had not expected. If the interviewed are speaking truth, and I believe they are, the Black Panthers and the Black Power movements were misrepresented by various religious groups, the media, and the political forces of the time. The interview of Jamal Joseph shows this especially. I couldn’t recommend owning this DVD without the special features, but because of them, a positive impact can come about for not only African Americans who need to understand the truth of their history, but also whites who have made assumptions based on the things they have seen in the past. I also think a better understanding of the film will come about after watching the interviews prior to the movie. They give nothing away to the story, but help explain the society and era in which the story is told.
While Night Catches Us is far from perfect, with the addition of the special features, this is a need to own DVD. It can be used for various discussions as it peaks interest in the time, the era, and the mistruths perpetuated about many during this time. It also helps one understand the reasoning why many would join forces and fight for equality and justice the way they did. Unfortunately, many of those injustices still continue. One has to ask themselves what is the best way to stand against those injustices; Night Catches Us helps the viewer think about the options, but more importantly also the consequences.
Below is a video interview with Jamal Joseph. While not in the movie, it gives a perspective presented by Jamal that may be informative to others. If the video doesn’t appear, just click on the following link, otherwise, click on the video.
Below is the trailer for the film:
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