Black Panther Party Profiled In 'Night Catches Us'

A new film, set in the mid-1970s, offers a dramatic look at the Black Panther Party through fictional characters, in the years after that movement's heyday. "Night Catches Us" tells the story of a former Panther who returns home, years after being run out of town as a suspected police informant. Host Michel Martin talks about the movie with first-time writer and director Tanya Hamilton and actor Jamie Hector.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Finally today, we want to tell you about a new film that opens this weekend in a number of cities. It explores a tumultuous time in history, recent history still loaded with the tension of the very different choices people made in response to those times. The film is called "Night Catches Us" and it's set in 1976.

The story centers on Marcus, a one-time member of the Black Panther Party who returns to his old Philadelphia neighborhood after years away and tries to deal with all the complications he left behind. It's the first feature film for writer and director Tanya Hamilton and she's with us now, along with actor Jamie Hector, who plays a character called Dwayne DoRight Miller. He's a neighborhood Panther leader who stayed behind. And they're both with us now. Thank you both so much for joining us.

Ms. TANYA HAMILTON (Filmmaker, "Night Catches Us"): Thank you for having us.

Mr. JAMIE HECTOR (Actor): Thank you.

MARTIN: Now, Tanya, it's my understanding that it took you a total of 10 years to make this film. So I have to assume that it was important to you. So, what drove you to make this film?

Ms. HAMILTON: I think I wanted to try to make a film, I often say that, you know, kind of looked at people who were struggling in the aftermath, in a way, of a war, even though it's an abstract kind of an idea. But just that the war of that kind of black power struggle was on their streets and in their neighborhoods. And, you know, and I think I wanted to try to really look at some complicated characters who might have lived through that time.

MARTIN: Well, you know, the film is interesting 'cause I think in looking at it, a lot of people will realize that they've seen a lot of documentary footage or still footage, but they don't really know a lot about the people's lives. Like, what was it every day? Like, what was getting groceries like? What do we do for fun, that kind of thing. And that is really the story that you focus on. You focus on the era after the Panthers sort of era is over.

But you really focus on more the relationships among the people and what their participation in this time of history, how that imprinted them later on. And I'm interested in why you chose that slice of a story.

Ms. HAMILTON: I mean, I think as a filmmaker and as a writer, I think I'm really interested in minutia. I think pretty much everything I do looks at sort of the smallness of things, you know, always knowing that it's the emotional subtext that's the stuff that people can really relate to. While the story is about these people and they're of color and they're living this, you know, experience that was so very much about the sort of African-American experience in the late '60s and the '70s.

I think that this is really a very simple story of two people who want to be together but, you know, their history's preventing them. I think it's a story about a mother, you know, trying to raise her kid without a husband. I think that it's about people who, you know, are struggling with their past. I mean, so all of those things are so compelling because I think it's how we as humans function every single day.

MARTIN: Jamie Hector, I think many people will know you from your work in "The Wire." You play the drug lord Marlo Stanfield, and you were in the NBC series "Heroes" as the villain Knox. Tell us a little bit about your character and what drew you to it.

Mr. HECTOR: What drew me to the character was the script. It was basically the history of the Black Panthers, the fact that it was a post-Black Panther story. As you said early on, it was a piece of the life of the Black Panthers. And DoRight, I just totally appreciated his character and what he brought to the page. He was one that was a leader in the community. After the fact, he didn't dwindle down and fade away. He basically wanted to keep it alive.

And in looking deeper into the party and trying to figure out what happened to the party, I learned a lot. There's one book called "Agents of Repression." It just opened my eyes as to what happened to the party and the people that were basically standing in the way of the party. So I was just totally happy to be a part of it.

MARTIN: I just want to play a short clip from the film now. And I'll just mention that among the other performers in the film, Kerry Washington, who many people will know from Ray, and of course right now she's in "For Colored Girls," which is in theaters now. Anthony Mackie, who was in last year's Best Picture Oscar winner "The Hurt Locker." So, Tanya, maybe his luck will rub off on you, you know. Who knows?

So, I'm just going to play a short clip. This is a scene between Jamie and Anthony Mackie, who plays Marcus, as you said. Now, Marcus as just returned to town for his father's funeral. He's slowly reconnecting with people who he has not seen in years. And Jamie Hector, you play one of the people he's reconnected with, Dwayne DoRight Miller. And he's the neighborhood Panther leader who stayed. And here's a scene between the two of them. Here it is.

(Soundbite of film, "Night Catches Us")

Mr. ANTHONY MACKIE (Actor): (As Marcus Washington) Was wondering when you'd show up.

Mr. HECTOR: (as DoRight Miller) Here I am, baby.

Mr. MACKIE: (as Marcus Washington) What can I do for you, DoRight?

Mr. HECTOR: (as DoRight Miller) I got a message from the brothers.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MACKIE: (as Marcus Washington) They sent you?

Mr. HECTOR: (as DoRight Miller) Things have changed, snitch. I'm in charge now.

Mr. MACKIE: (as Marcus Washington) Same ole Dwayne. Got everybody fooled, huh? I'm only here for a week then I'll be gone.

Mr. HECTOR: (as DoRight Miller) Oh, you think that changes things? No, you won't see it coming, snitch. One day the lights just going to go out. Pow. Nobody's forgotten what you did to Neil.

MARTIN: What he's saying you did to Neil, Tanya, this question is for you, is that one of the central tensions in the film was that many people in the neighborhood seem to believe that Marcus is a snitch, that he somehow had something to do with the death of another member of the party. Why did you choose that storyline?

Ms. HAMILTON: I was really fascinated, you know, with the sort of the political and the personal and how I think it can resonate through all movements; the Panthers I think were not unique. I think I was interested in how the authorities, be it the local police or the Feds, how they were able to kind of take what so is distinctly human about people which is, you know, jealousies, loves, wants, any of those emotions and to kind of use it against these particular parties and groups. And I felt like I couldn't make a film about the Panthers without finding a way to kind of internalized that.

I think the prevailing sort of idea of how the Panther party was kind of crushed a little bit or pressured mightily into not being as strong as it was by the time, you know, this film takes place it takes place in '76 - I think it had really kind of buckled a little bit under all the pressure. And I think that that was sort of the way. They were able to kind of come inside and turn people against one another, use sort of the things that are not the most wonderful parts of us as human beings and turn people against each other and...

MARTIN: But, you know, one of the things I think that people will appreciate about the film is that it's, you know, fair-minded in the sense that you are humanizing these people but you're also humanizing the people who didn't agree with them, who thought they were ridiculous. And in fact, there's one character in the film who is just like what is all this about? I mean what, just, you know, leave it alone. This is all in the past. You all are basically sort of play acting here.

Jamie, I was curious in your reaction to this because, you know, there are two different views of the Panthers then and now, and those same views I think still exist. On the one hand, people thought they were very courageous, standing up against, you know, the kind of the day-to-day indignities that a lot of African-Americans experienced and many people say still experience. On the other hand, many people thought they were ridiculous. They were like boys acting like men and play acting in a war they could never actually win. And I was curious, Jamie, about how you dealt with that. How did you sort of decide what was keeping DoRight Miller in the movement, if you want to call it that?

Mr. HECTOR: Well, what's keeping him going was basically the injustice that was still going on in the community. DoRight was a person that - I think he rose to power out of Anthony Mackie's character and several other characters. They basically left the movement. And DoRight was a part of them and he basically rose to power because they were - everyone else was absent. But the thing about it is the injustice never ended. There were still problems in the community and there was no one around to actually carry the weight.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm Michel Martin and you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about the new film "Night Catches Us." It opens in selected cities this weekend and more cities the following weekend. We're speaking with writer and director Tanya Hamilton and actor Jamie Hector, who plays one of the key roles in the film.

Tanya, I also think that many people will be interested in the way you deal with the male-female relationships, particularly as a female writer and director. And you've taken on an era that I think in the mind's eye comes across as really being about masculinity and men asserting their masculinity.

I just want to play a short clip from a scene in which Kerry Washington's character, Patty or Patricia, confronts Jamie's character. And this is after the confrontation that Jamie's character has had with Anthony Mackie's character where he's basically come to confront him about his belief that he is a snitch, and here's that clip.

(Soundbite of film, "Night Catches Us")

Ms. KERRY WASHINGTON (Actor): (as Patricia Wilson) You know I am here, right?

Mr. HECTOR: (as DoRight Miller) Are you serious?

Ms. WASHINGTON: (as Patricia Wilson) Yes. I mean it. Stay away from him.

Mr. HECTOR: (as DoRight Miller) Mother (bleep) comes in to my place. You familiar (bleep)?

Ms. WASHINGTON: (as Patricia Wilson) You went after him. I know you, Dwayne, you've never liked him.

Mr. HECTOR: (as DoRight Miller) Why you taking up for the guy?

Ms. WASHINGTON: (as Patricia Wilson) Because that's what I do for all of you.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. HECTOR: (as DoRight Miller) Are you with him? I'm just asking. Okay, look, you know he always had something for you. Do you have something for him?

Ms. WASHINGTON: (as Patricia Wilson) It's always the same (bleep) with you. You're paranoid.

Mr. HECTOR: (as DoRight Miller) The Feds own him. He's their inside man. Big boy.

Ms. WASHINGTON: (as Patricia Wilson) Seems like you bought the same story everybody else did.

Mr. HECTOR: (as DoRight Miller) No, I know. I know.

MARTIN: So, Tanya, tell me what was on your mind.

Ms. HAMILTON: I actually really like that scene a lot.

MARTIN: Well, I'm glad we picked it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HAMILTON: The women, I think they're pretty fascinating. I mean I think that there is a very sort of interpreted as a I think a very male period, you know, sexy black men with guns kind of thing. But I think the women, a lot of the women I think were kind of the backbone. They were sort of like the, you know, talk about minutia, they were the workers and I find that sort of compelling. I liked the idea that the Patricia character had gone on to become a lawyer but that she was still bailing these guys out, you know, that she was still their advocate. She was still, you know, showing up when they had their various arraignments. And I was very in love with that character because I liked the duality that she sort of represented.

She comes from the rank and file of the party and she believes so truly in the essence of what the Panthers were in their true beautiful spirit. And that, you know, she's with this other man who, yeah, represents I think a little bit of a different perspective. You know, she's someone who believes that if he's going to make any changes he's going to make them from the inside and that she's not living in the present and that she needs to grow up.

And, you know, I think often that perspective I think is left out, and that it is in a way sort of not respected, that there were people who really dissented in their perspective on kind of what the Panthers were and why they were important. And so in my mind she's the most complicated character in the film.

MARTIN: And speaking of being respected, you are still, as a woman director, kind of a woman in a man's world. It was big news last year when Katherine Bigelow won the best directing Oscar for "The Hurt Locker" because it was the first time. I'm curious about your experience as a female director. Did you feel you had to take the extra step to get the respect of your cast and crew? Did you feel, what, the playing field was level? How was it?

Ms. HAMILTON: You know, I try to sort of - I try to be as, certainly as honest as I can about this and, you know, I think that I'm very obsessed with race. Like I'm really, that's the way that I tend to really look at the world and for better or worse. And I think that when I went into making this film I really very rarely distill the world through sort of this sort of gender lens.

MARTIN: You mean it didn't occur to you you were a girl? Is that what you're saying?

Ms. HAMILTON: Yeah. Just sort of, you know, you kind of go through the world, you do your thing. It, you know, I always sort of break things down in terms of race. And I think I was really surprised in a way that I thought much more often about gender going through this last year and change...

MARTIN: How come?

Ms. HAMILTON: I mean I think it's hard. I think it's interesting. I mean I think that like there were times when I really was made to feel like I was the girl in the room.

MARTIN: Like how?

Ms. HAMILTON: I mean, you know, I don't really want to have to go into details, you know, these things, they sort of tend to level out, you know, a year later you're like ah, whatever. But what felt important to me was that I sort of walk through the door on guard for racially what I was going to have to contend with. And I found my fists sort of coming up in the time that they had to come up and often I would sort of, you know, kind of reassess what has happened and really I think...

MARTIN: So your fist should have coming up because you're girl, not because you are black. Is that what you're saying?

Ms. HAMILTON: Yeah. Like I think that there were a lot of times when I thought, you know, this is going to be about race and really recognize in the end that it was actually not at all. I, you know, it's interesting. I don't know. It was a big surprise.

MARTIN: So, Jamie, she actually Tanya, I'm talking about you like you're not there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: She had a pretty high-powered cast for a first-time director. How did she do?

Ms. HAMILTON: Uh-oh.

Mr. HECTOR: Amazing.

MARTIN: Yeah.

Mr. HECTOR: You know, it's funny because as you guys were speaking just now that's exactly what I was thinking about. She was so well-prepared on set that we basically got on set and just went to work. To me, every time I was on set everything was well-organized, well-prepared and the wheel was functioning well.

MARTIN: So you wouldn't be saying she directs like a girl.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HECTOR: No, no. You know what? It's funny because I'm a martial artist, right, and there were young ladies as well as men in class. And there's one thing that you understand is once you walk through the doors you're not a male nor a female; you are a warrior. She was on set directing as a director.

MARTIN: Well, Tanya, thank well, congratulations.

Ms. HAMILTON: Thank you.

MARTIN: You've been nominated for an Independent Spirit Award in the best first feature category. After 10 long years, here you are. You're in the theaters. How does it feel?

Ms. HAMILTON: Yeah. It's great. I'm losing a little bit of sleep at night, but we'll see what happens on Friday when it opens. But yeah, it's been a very long road and, you know, I've had a lot of collaborators on this film and so I think that there's just a very nice long collective sigh of relief, you know, that it's done.

MARTIN: What's next for you? What do you want to do next?

Ms. HAMILTON: I'd like to make another film and I, you know, I'm struggling with my screenplay. I have this thing about these two brothers, one who's Native-American and the other one who's Native-American and half black and just, you know, trying to finish it and I'd like to make it. So we'll see what happens.

MARTIN: You know one of the things I've always wanted to ask a filmmaker like you is that what do you do to support yourself over the 10 years you take to make a film like this? I know this is in your heart, but how do you keep body and soul together while you're working with getting this film done?

Ms. HAMILTON: Oh, that's such a good question. I always like to say this film is a rich person's game. I am not rich - very, very far from it. So, I've just worked every crappy job, you know, under the sun. And that's cool. Like, I've worked at like an investment banking firm answering the phone, which actually was the non-crappy job actually, for a bunch of years, and just doing whatever. I mean just sort of, you know, anything so that the time I have is not using too much of my creative energy so that I could, you know, work on my screenplay and just sort of plug along and try to get a film made.

MARTIN: Tanya Hamilton is the writer and director of the film "Night Catches Us." It opens in select cities this weekend and has a wider release the following weekend and it's also available right now On Demand. Jamie Hector plays to Dwayne DoRight Miller in the film. And both were kind enough to join us from our studios in New York.

I thank you both so much for speaking with us. And good luck to you both.

Ms. HAMILTON: Yeah, thanks for having us.

Mr. HECTOR: Thanks for having us.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. And remember, to tell us more, you can always go to npr.org and find us under the Programs tab. You can also friend me on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. Just look for TELL ME MORE, NPR.

I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.

Let's talk more tomorrow.

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