Marcus (Anthony Mackie) returns to Philadelphia for a funeral, where he encounters Patricia (Kerry Washington) and other former Black Panther members in Tanya Hamilton's Night Catches Us.
Marcus (Anthony Mackie) returns to Philadelphia for a funeral, where he encounters Patricia (Kerry Washington) and other former Black Panther members in Tanya Hamilton's Night Catches Us. Magnolia Pictures
In Tanya Hamilton's Night Catches Us, ex-Black Panthers confront the ways in which their former radicalism has since shaped their lives, years after they cut ties with the organization.
Set in 1976, the movie tells the story of Marcus, a former Black Panther who returns to Philadelphia for the first time in several years for his father's funeral. Before he left home, his cohort Neil was killed in a police shootout; several other Panthers accused Marcus of telling the cops where to find him.
Upon returning to town, Marcus encounters Neil's widow, Patricia, now a civil-rights lawyer who is raising a daughter alone. He also encounters Patricia's cousin Jimmy, who grew up seeing the Panthers and idolizes everything about them — and appears to be headed for his own violent confrontation with the cops.
"I think Jimmy is my favorite character," filmmaker Hamilton tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "He's the most flawed character in the film. Jimmy is someone who borrows someone else's history without understanding where it comes from and how it's being fought."
Hamilton's film traces the ways Marcus deals with these complicated relationships he left behind — and the ways in which his fellow ex-revolutionaries have struggled with understanding their own radical pasts.
"I often try to say that there's something both tragic and very romantic in that period, during the civil rights [struggles] and the transition into black power," Hamilton says. "I felt like the film not only needed to talk about the waning days [of the Black Panthers], but also about what ultimately destroyed the Panthers and the complexity of that destruction."
Hamilton, who wrote and directed the film, explains that she titled the film after a common saying in Jamaica: "Don't let night catch you."
"That simply means come back at a decent hour," she says. "I felt like the film is about these people who are all running in various directions. And it spoke in a way of their history and how it was going to catch up with them, and they were going to have to contend with it."
Director Tanya Hamilton started making short films as an undergraduate at Cooper Union. Night Catches Us, her first feature film, debuted at the Sundance Film Festival.
Director Tanya Hamilton started making short films as an undergraduate at Cooper Union. Night Catches Us, her first feature film, debuted at the Sundance Film Festival. Magnolia Pictures
On using Philadelphia as a filming location
"My sense is that Philly hasn't changed all that much since the '70s. The producers wanted to move the film out of Philly to New York at a certain point because it was just going to be cheaper for their tax credit. I really fought very hard to keep it in Philly, I think because I had lived here for eight years, and I said, 'This is the perfect town.' Germantown is this magical place, and it hasn't changed for a really long time — for the good in some places, and for the tremendous bad in others. So we drove around and pointed at the blocks that made sense for us. There's some cell phone towers that — if you look very carefully — that we couldn't get rid of because our budget was really tiny."
On capturing the 1970s on-screen
"I worked out a lot of color stuff with the woman who was the production designer and the wardrobe woman and the cinematographer. We talked a lot about what colors we wanted to use, and once that was decided they went and did their thing. The people who worked on this film were all artists. And maybe that sounds like a cliche, but it's really true — all of the lead people, the designer, the cinematographer, all were people who had their own vision, and I said 'These are the colors I want. These are the details of the world.' And they went and incorporated their own perspective."
On the powerful imagery of the Black Panther Party
"There's some stuff from Fred Hampton that I think is just beautiful. It's him standing at a podium talking. He was from the Chicago chapter of the Panthers, and he was murdered by Chicago police in his bed. He was very young, maybe 21. I think a lot of people thought he was going to replace Huey Newton, one of the founders of the Panthers, in a way, because he was so eloquent and so far-seeing. He was a great community organizer. But there are some images of him sitting around with a gun. ... There was one piece I loved, it's a shot of Black Panthers at Fred Hampton's funeral; we use it in the film. It's a panning shot across all of their faces in their berets, and they have suits on — and it's so heartbreaking, in a way. It looks almost like they have been really defeated, really kind of broken."