February 24, 2011

Abandoning the Struggle

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Is fighting for a dead cause foolish or admirable? When is it the right time to move on from an idea that was once everything you believed in? Night Catches Us, a movie directed by Tanya Hamilton, follows the lives of several ex-Black Panthers during the 1970s, after the heyday of the movement and poses these very questions. Night Catches Us develops against this historical background. However, the historical aspect of the film does not take away from the story, making it a great film. With a straightforward screenplay and a cast so perfect that one never dares to question the genius of the characters they portray, Hamilton’s big screen directorial debut avoids the clichés and cheesy lines that can turn even a movie with a star-studded cast into a flop. The film starts off with a voice over reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, in which the last phrase “liberty and justice for all” is stated as a question. This, along with images of Black Panthers, sets the background for the film.

It is 1976 Philadelphia, around the time when the Black Panther Party was dissolved. Patricia Wilson (Kerry Washington), a Panther turned attorney, is a single mother raising her daughter in the neighborhood she has lived in since her old activism days. Following countless years of absence, an old comrade, Marcus Washington (Anthony Mackie) turns up in town for his father’s funeral. Accused of being a traitor since the day he left, Marcus’ stay in town provokes unpleasant encounters between him and the old Panthers that still lurk around the neighborhood. This does not only complicate Marcus’ life, but it also unexpectedly alters Patricia’s life. After trying to hide the past for years by keeping secrets from her young daughter Iris about the father she never met, Patricia is forced to face it again — not only for her sake, but for Marcus’ and her daughter’s sake too. Although the film does not turn out to be a “this-stranger-is-actually-your-father” kind of film — thank God for that — it is interesting how Hamilton manages to make Marcus’ character as significant as if he were a prodigal son or even a father figure.

It must also be noted that the Marcus’ credibility lies not only with the script, but with the actor who portrays him. Mackie has had considerably good roles in prominent Hollywood movies like Million Dollar Baby and The Hurt Locker, both Academy Award winners for Best Picture. Nonetheless, no matter how good the films were, the roles he played in them do not compare with this one. He owned this part. He successfully balances a confidence with humility, a macho like nature with  a sense of security. Washington, who has played the leading lady in films like Ray and The Last King of Scotland, manages to conquer once again the role of indomitable yet sensible woman. The two make a good match. Their chemistry lets them bring out the flaws in each other in a way that allows the viewer to get inside their relationship. The advanced acting and realistic nature of the character interactions lends credibility to the story.

The first part of the film takes us into the everyday lives of the characters, with nothing out of the ordinary really going on. As the film takes off slowly, it becomes clear that it’s not an action-packed thrill ride. If it were, it would probably center around one chaotic event in the past that has haunts all of the characters’ lives, and takes the viewer along for a look into the past. This is not the case with Night Catches Us. Even though the characters have demons hanging out in their pasts, the film does not delve into their personal histories too much. At the end of the film, Patricia finally starts telling her daughter about the past that she has hidden for so long. She explains that because she became a mother, she stopped putting her political ideals before everything else. She was not the person that she once was, but it didn’t bother her. This is when it becomes clear that the story is about the characters. It’s not about the past.

Original Author: M. Celeste Gonzalez