When Tanya Hamilton was 16, she discovered that her mother’s good friend Carol, who lived with them and whom she considered a second mom, had spent a year in jail for political activism. She had no idea that this cranky woman she had known for so long had had this alternate life—a youth spent in sit-ins. She was intrigued.
Carol materializes, albeit modified, in Hamilton’s debut feature, Night Catches Us, an indie filmed last year in Germantown that’s now one of the Gala Screenings at this year’s Philadelphia Film Festival. She’s now the more-loving Patricia (played by Kerry Washington), a lawyer, mother and former Black Panther in 1976 Philadelphia. Her past returns in the form of Marcus (Anthony Mackie), another ex-Panther who years back was falsely accused of ratting to the police and getting her husband killed.
“I wanted to look at the Panther movement as a metaphor for war,” says Hamilton. Though the Black Panthers aren’t physically in the film—apart from sporadic newsreel cutaways—their presence haunts the portrait of a less-hectic but in no way peaceful bicentennial America.
Patricia and Marcus are older, wiser and calmer than their rash younger selves. “The Panthers are so fascinating to me because they were made up of people who were massively young,” says Hamilton, pointing out that Panther deputy chairman Fred Hampton was assassinated when he was 21. She remembers being a “narcissist” herself at that age. “I think it’s chemical. Maybe there’s a rare 24-year-old who’s not a huge narcissist.”
The combination of youth and social distress, she argues, birthed the Panthers. “You have these people who have so much at stake, because they’re living in a world that for them is upside-down. But then there’s also this emotional thing, about being young. There’s a clash.”
Hamilton was born in Jamaica, raised in Maryland and educated at Columbia. She moved to Philadelphia about a decade ago, not long after her first attempts to write what would become Night Catches Us. She describes the first drafts as “terrible,” including the one she submitted to the Sundance Lab. Her script improved; Hamilton eventually went with private financing.
A period piece on a tight budget is tricky business—unable to afford ’70s classics for the soundtrack, she managed to land the Roots to compose and record the retro-yet-modern score. Luckily, her current home proved an ideal setting for a movie set in that era. Germantown still looks like the 1970s, and thanks to our city’s wealth of stocked thrift stores, she scored couldn’t-be-more-authentic clothes and period details for a song.
The producers, however, originally wanted Brooklyn. “But there’s a rawness to Philly,” she says. “There’s something very Southern. The history of black people and their clashes with the police is so distinct here. Brooklyn does not have that raw history.” Nor did it have the specific, volatile relationship of the black community with police commissioner and future Mayor Frank Rizzo.
With cameras soon set to roll, she was still hearing horror stories. A fellow filmmaker told her about the time in 1970 that Rizzo raided the Panthers in search of evidence in the shootings of two cops the previous nights. About a hundred officers descended on their Philadelphia offices right before a national Panthers convention at Temple. Though they found no evidence, the police forced the Panthers to strip down before news cameras. Hamilton worked a similar scene in Night Catches Us.
But the revolutionary spirit materializes most explicitly in the character of Jimmy, a young, unemployed local whose frustrations are so profound he winds up emboldened by the Panther mythology—not the actual one, but the stereotype. One key scene involves a comic encouraging Panthers to kill cops. Marcus points out it was created by the feds to instill a fear of the Panthers in the general population.
“There’s the idea that the Panthers killed people or blew things up, when in fact they came out of grassroots. They came out of community organizing, the kinds of things we’re surrounded by now,” she says. “I saw Jimmy as all the kids I went to high school with in the ’80s: Latching onto somebody else’s history, someone else’s ideology, and getting it wrong. Because it’s not yours.”
All this said, Hamilton does not see Night Catches Us as about the Panthers, or even as a political film. “I wanted the smallness of moments,” she says of a film that is anything but pushy. “I do not like messages. I love metaphor. I love minutiae. I pushed for subtlety a lot. You could look at a scene and think it’s flat. But there’s so much in the unspoken. There’s so much in between the lines.”