Reviewer: Jeffrey M. Anderson
Rating (out of 5): ****
Tanya Hamilton makes her feature writing and directing debut with the exceptional character study Night Catches Us; it veers perilously close to message mongering and smugness, but mostly does well to focus on some surprising character traits and fine period detail.
Anthony Mackie plays Marcus Washington, who suddenly returns home to 1976 Philadelphia after some mysterious time away, for his father's funeral. It's a rough-and-tumble time, with the remains of the Black Panther movement still evident in the streets. Marcus tries to fix up the family home in exchange for a place to sleep, but his brother wants nothing to do with him. Instead he ends up staying with an old flame, Patricia Wilson (Kerry Washington), a do-gooder with the habit of taking in stray souls.
Of course, there's a secret, shameful history here, and Hamilton keeps it from us until the third act, as a good screenwriter should. But when the scene comes, it's powerful... not because of the content, but because Marcus and Patricia simply tell their story to Patricia's daughter Iris (Jamara Griffin). Trying to explain their motivations, the politics and the times to a youngster, makes the tale all the more dramatic.
Arguably, Washington (Mother and Child, Ray) has never had a better role, and she comes across all the more sensual for it; Mackie likewise proves himself one of the top actors of his generation for his willingness to play Marcus as defensive. He has the opportunity to engage in several fights and skirmishes, but he often shuts down, leaving a strange, unfinished quality. He has his reasons, of course, but it's still a brave move for an actor to play such a non-heroic role. (Washington and Mackie both previously appeared in Spike Lee's woeful She Hate Me; this is a huge step up.)
Hamilton includes the Black Panther lore as a backdrop, but also manages to portray both its positive, noble side, as well as its mutated, destructive, angry side. Meanwhile, characters run the gamut from ne'er-do-wells who pick up cans for a living, to well-to-do African American white collars. If Hamilton had enjoyed a bit more room to stretch out her themes, this could have been even stronger, but it's an excellent achievement to weave so many complex themes and shades of gray with such poise.
Besides some deleted and alternate scenes, the Magnolia DVD includes a behind the scenes featurette and interviews (including with Black Panthers Bobby Seale and Jamal Joseph).
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