February is Black History Month, and while I was previously able to cover the amazing film Beyond the Lights by Gina Prince-Bythewood last semester, I realized that I haven’t written much about the talent of black women directors. This has clearly been an error on my part, and to help remedy this, for the next month of my column, I will be reviewing films directed exclusively by black women in an effort to showcase their amazing talents.
For the first week of Black History Month, I wanted to showcase a filmmaker who’s only made one feature-length film so far, but this result is a rich and beautiful portrait of an important piece of black history. The film is Night Catches Us, written and directed by Tanya Hamilton. Hamilton developed the story idea and script for ten years before making the film, and her meticulous attention to detail shows. Night Catches Us is set in Philadelphia in 1976, where a former Black Panther named Marcus (played by Anthony Mackie) arrives after years (and a stint in jail) away from home to attend his father’s funeral, causing conflict in the neighborhood. Marcus reportedly snitched on a fellow Panther, resulting in his death, and the Panthers who still reside in the area antagonize him. The only person who seems to welcome him back is the dead Panther’s widow Patricia (played by a wonderful Kerry Washington) and her ten-year-old daughter Iris. Running parallel alongside Marcus and Patricia’s storyline is her younger cousin, Jimmy, who after increased hostility from local police finds himself becoming more involved with the group of remaining Panthers in the neighborhood.
Night Catches Us builds slowly but never bores. Rather, the film draws the viewer into the time period through use of archival footage and photographs alongside the fictional storyline. This is an effective tool to engage and educate audiences. It can be easy in a period piece to separate the fictional storyline from the actual events, but combining them evokes strong emotions in the viewer, separating Hamilton’s film from other films that merely try to capture the era and struggles that black men and women went through at the time. Night Catches Us places us right in the middle of it all. It is also incredibly important to note that, despite being set in the late 70’s, the film captures issues that are still (unfortunately) relevant today, most notably the conflict between the neighborhood and local law enforcement. A scene involving a police officer forcing a man to plant evidence against another feels like it was ripped from this year’s headlines, not the news from over thirty years ago.
Mackie and Washington are both incredible, both giving subtle performances but letting the screen crackle with the intense chemistry between them. They are two people dealing with (or avoiding) their past. The film has a lot to say, but rather than spell everything out explicitly, it is up to us, the viewers, to piece it all together. But it works, and the result is beautiful. Another standout to me was the soundtrack, which was scored by The Roots. The music becomes almost like another character in the ensemble, helping to compliment and support the other aspects of the film.
I’m eagerly waiting to see what Hamilton has in store next. It’s not very often that we see a debut film with this much love, detail, and care put into it. Night Catches Us is an under-appreciated gem that should be seen by larger audiences.
Films available to watch in theatres:
- Mustang (dir. Deniz Gamze Ergüven and nominated for Best Foreign Film at this year’s Academy Awards) is now playing at the Times Cinema.
- Kung-Fu Panda 3 (co-directed by Jennifer Yuh Nelson) is now playing at Bayshore’s iPic, the Fox Bay Cinema Grill, the Marcus chain theatres, and AMC Mayfair 18.
Films available to stream online:
- B for Boy (dir. Chika Anadu) is available to stream on Netflix.
- Just Another Girl on the I.R.T. (dir. Leslie Harris) is available to stream on Netflix.
- Something New (dir. Sanaa Hamri) is available to stream on Netflix.
- Mississippi Damned (dir. Tina Mabry) is available to stream on Netflix.
- I Will Follow and Middle of Nowhere (both dir. Ava DuVernay) are available to stream on Netflix.
- Jane B. for Agnes V. (dir. Agnes Varda) is available to rent on Amazon and is also available to stream on Fandor.
- Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (dir. Eleanor Coppola) is available to rent on Amazon, iTunes, and Google.
- Turbo Kid, co-directed by Anouk Whissell, is available to stream on Netflix.
- Meet the Patels, co-directed by Geeta Patel, is available to stream on Netflix.
- Drone, directed by Tonje Hessen Schei, is available to stream on Netflix.
- Pure, directed by Lisa Langseth, is available to stream on Netflix.