The past looms large over Night Catches Us, in which deciding to continue fighting the old fight or opting for survival are choices that exact a heavy toll. Set in a 1976 Philadelphia still grappling with its Black Panthers legacy, writer-director Tanya Hamilton’s film pivots around the return of Marcus (Anthony Mackie) for his dad’s funeral after a four-year absence motivated by the community-wide belief that he sold out his Panther mate to the Feds, resulting in his death. Running away had the effect of leaving his fallen friend’s wife Patty (Kerry Washington) and her daughter Iris (affecting newcomer Jamara Griffin) to pick up the pieces alone, which included shacking up with an uncaring businessman and trying to care for her dim-witted, angry cousin Jimmy (Amari Cheatom), who still harbors dreams of following in his cop-killing Panthers brothers’ footsteps.
Hamilton’s slow, ambiguous reveal of her characters’ relationships and histories at first comes across as somewhat shaky. But the further Night Catches Us progresses in its patient, slightly elliptical style (marked by concise cutaways to imagery which speaks to key emotional truths, as well as an energized soundtrack by the Roots), the more it’s clear that the director intends her unsettled film to hum with a bit of underlying structural dissonance.
Marcus’s appearance leads to sparks with both his Muslim sibling Bostic (Roots frontman Tariq Trotter), bitter over his brother’s abandonment, as well as with new Panthers chief Dwayne (Jamie Hector), who blames Marcus for his comrade’s demise and has driven the organization further into violent criminality. That Marcus and Patty’s bond will blossom into something more is assured by their initial, longing-suffused glances. Yet the film isn’t about coming back home to happily mend fences and heal wounds so much as it’s concerned with the strife and discord born from struggling, often in vain, to deal with an uneasy present while also grappling with a still-raw past.
Jimmy Carter soundbites about a dawning era of hope, as well as archival clips of the Panthers’ camaraderie and armed conflict, exude a melancholy that heightens rather than mars the film’s critique of the Panthers movement’s devolution into self-destructive militarism. True, a few narrative strands receive short shrift, most glaringly that involving Wendell Pierce’s incompletely conceived detective. Nonetheless, the lyrically titled Night Catches Us resonates deeply as a portrait of idealistic beliefs co-opted and mutated, as well as the wrong lessons passed down by said transformation, here epitomized by the distressing sight of Jimmy practice-firing a gun in a dilapidated building, his shots ringing out not with a ferocious bang but a meek, pitiful pop.