Earnest local indie just doesn't quite get there.
This is the part of my job I hate.
When you spend most of your days in dark rooms consuming a fairly steady diet of dreck, negative reviews can be cathartic. I’m not going to lie; it’s fun to occasionally get revenge for all those wasted hours by railing against the arrogance of overpaid movie stars in one grotesquely expensive, lowest-common-denominator mediocrity after another.
But every once in a while you stumble upon a movie made with the best of intentions, a noble little labor of love that needs critical support to survive in this ridiculously competitive marketplace. So what’s a writer to do with a picture like Night Catches Us, an earnest, locally made, extremely well-meaning indie that just doesn’t work?
Set in 1976, writer-director Tanya Hamilton’s debut is set in a Germantown neighborhood of overgrown trees and junked cars. Anthony Mackie stars as Marcus, a haunted drifter who returns to his hometown after a mysterious four-year absence, ostensibly to attend his father’s funeral. Developed in the Sundance Institute’s Screenwriters Lab, Night Catches Us bears the Redford factory’s imprint—long, elliptical conversations freighted with backstory that’s parceled out quietly over a great deal of screen time. Despite the Philadelphia setting, the movie is structured and paced like one of those muted, rural family melodramas that are a dime a dozen at regional festivals.
Nobody is very happy to see Marcus. His brother gives him the boot shortly after the service, leaving him to sleep under a bridge in the Caddy he just inherited. The local hoodlums want him gone, spraypainting the word “SNITCH” on his car and constantly hinting at past misdeeds with an increasingly maddening vagueness.
The only friendly face is Patty, who now wants to be called Patricia. Played by Kerry Washington, she’s a civic-minded single mom who practices community law and has turned her home into a sort of halfway house for the neighborhood’s problem kids. It doesn’t take long for Marcus to end up living there as well, puttering around fixing stuff while exchanging awkward small talk with Patricia’s inquisitive daughter, Iris (Jamara Griffin).
The problem is that you feel like you’re going to grow old waiting for characters to stop eyeing one another warily and just lay their cards on the table by having a goddamned conversation, already. We eventually discover that Marcus and Patricia were once active in the Black Panther movement, and that four years ago Iris’ father was murdered by police officers, thanks in no small part to information gleaned from interrogating Marcus. Or maybe it’s more complicated than that?
Meanwhile, Patricia’s headstrong cousin Jimmy, described by those who love him as having a brick between his ears, tries to make ends meet selling scrap metal and finds himself in almost daily altercations with racist, bullying police officers. Problems predictably arise when Jimmy discovers his family’s buried Panther memorabilia, including crazy agitprop comic books that spring to life in animated form. Reborn as an activist, the dim-bulb cousin won’t heed Marcus’ warnings, and sets the stage for history to repeat itself.
Night Catches Us tackles a milieu underserved by movies (save maybe Mario Van Peebles’ absurd 1995 Panther ), and Mackie and Washington carry the weight of their shared past with a marvelous fatigue. Mackie in particular, much like in The Hurt Locker, has a way with silences. He carries himself as if wise beyond his years and wishing he wasn’t. Washington’s line readings stray toward the over-emphatic, particularly opposite his stillness.
But Hamilton doesn’t trust her actors enough. The script undercuts the measured scale of the performances with blunt, melodramatic proclamations. The movie certainly did not need young Iris staring out at the river, somberly stating, “Ghosts. They’re everywhere.” (In fact, no movie needs a scene like that.) Worse is when the fate of Iris’ father is at last revealed in an incredibly overwrought symbolic flourish as the child peels new wallpaper off the family’s living-room wall.
The movie’s shocking twist is communicated obliquely at first through furtive glances, demonstrating incredible respect for the audience. But two minutes later, it’s announced out loud, several times, by a cartoonishly crooked cop played by Wendell Pierce (Bunk from HBO’s The Wire, giving an uncharacteristically terrible performance).
Hamilton makes the most of an obviously limited budget, capturing the broke, run-down 1970s vibe without calling undue attention to the art direction like most period pictures. Every prop in the movie looks either second-hand or broken. An effective score by the Roots bolsters the era’s authenticity, and considering the subject matter and degree of difficulty involved, it’s a commendable achievement that Night Catches Us got made at all.
If only that were enough.
Director: Tanya Hamilton
Starring: Anthony Mackie, Kerry Washington
Running time: 90 minutes