Having lived in and around Philadelphia my entire life I felt a certain affinity for the general milieu of Night Catches Us (2010). Personally, one of the things that I admire the most about Tanya Hamilton’s film is how perfectly she captures the juxtaposing landscapes of Philadelphia. In the Germantown area in particular urban streets of row-homes and corner stores can end abruptly where a heavily wooded park begins. Philadelphia is a city that changes drastically block by block and very few films have captured that aspect of the city.
Tanya Hamilton’s focus on location is indicative of her general interest in the lifestyle of the average Black American. Night Catches Us may deal with the legacies of the Black Panther Party and the systemic racism of law enforcement, but the perspective on these historic institutions is wholly grounded in the ordinary and even mundane. Night Catches Us tells a story that could be over in half an hour but Hamilton opts instead to fill Night Catches Us with very human portraits of individuals navigating the everyday. This stylistic decision, perhaps influenced by the films of Charles Burnett, buttresses the dramatic power of the film’s histrionics.
Night Catches Us is rather poignantly set in the summer of the bicentennial. This landmark could refer to the two-hundred years of American Independence from Britain or two-hundred years of White oppression of Black Americans. It’s a distinction that Hamilton refuses to make explicit, preferring to instead infer that it is the latter rather than the former that Night Catches Us attempts to grapple with within the domestic spheres of her characters.
Night Catches Us focuses primarily on two individuals: Marcus (Anthony Mackie) and Patricia (Kerry Washington). These two characters are linked by a shared past in the Black Panther Party. In that past Patricia was severely traumatized while Marcus became a willing pariah within the Party. The supporting characters of Jimmy (Amari Cheatom) and Iris (Jamara Griffin) are used to explore Patricia’s link to her traumatic past and Marcus’ fear of an uncertain future.
Hamilton gets nuanced performances all around from her excellent ensemble cast. The lead actors share an intense chemistry that fills dramatic spaces affectingly with looks rather than words as the bulk of many scenes plays out in subtext. The leads and their immediate supporting cast are bolstered by excellent performances from The Wire alumni Wendell Pierce and Jamie Hector in small character roles. All in all Night Catches Us is a brilliantly acted film that remains as poignant and moving as ever.