Writer-director Tanya Hamilton's striking debut is the rare recent American independent film that goes beyond the private dramas of its protagonists, imagining them as players in broader historical moments. Set in the Germantown section of Philadelphia in the summer of 1976, Night Catches Us examines the failed hopes of '60s liberation struggles through former Black Panthers Patricia (Kerry Washington), now a lawyer, and Marcus (Anthony Mackie, mesmerizing as always), returning to Philly after a mysterious four-year absence. Interspersing snippets of iconic Black Panther footage from the docs Murder of Fred Hampton, Off the Pig, and Mayday, though resolutely opposed to easy nostalgia (unlike Mario Van Peebles' 1995 film Panther), Hamilton considers the near-impossibility of disentangling the personal from the political.
As the film opens, Jimmy Carter's campaign promises are heard on the radio. Nine-year-old Iris (an impressive Jamara Griffin) observes the world from her porch, filling the hours of another unstructured summer day, the season's shifts in light and texture beautifully captured by Hamilton, who trained as a painter at Cooper Union, and cinematographer David Tumblety. (The film's expert look is matched by the Roots' hypnotic, propulsive original score.) Iris' mother, Patricia, a dedicated community activist whose life is nothing but commitments to others, grows disenchanted with her older, squarer boyfriend, also an attorney; contends with her troubled 19-year-old, can-collecting cousin, Jimmy (Amari Cheatom); and faces Iris' persistent questions about what really happened to her father, Neal, a Panther who was killed by the police when she was 8 months old. A few streets away, Neal's old friend, Marcus, returns with nothing but an overstuffed duffel, bickering with his Muslim brother over their recently deceased reverend father and the fate of the family home.
Patricia and Marcus have been guarding for nearly a decade the secret of what really happened the night of Neal's death: "We don't talk about the past. It's too painful," Patricia reminds him. But the neighborhood's former Panthers, led by bar owner Dwayne (Jamie Hector, joined by fellow Wire alum Wendell Pierce as a corrupt detective in a strong supporting cast), continue to believe that Marcus snitched to the police about Neal's involvement in an earlier cop killing.
Dwayne and his pals still favor the uniform of black-male militancy: berets, leather jackets, and vests — attire that seems, in the bicentennial summer, outmoded, desperate, and empty. Yet a misinformed next generation, represented by Jimmy, will mimic the Panthers' get-ups and bravado, lionize their history, and fetishize their violence.
Refusing to romanticize Black Power, Hamilton chooses the riskier path of examining its emotional and political fallout. The bullet holes and bloodstains Iris uncovers after peeling away a strip of wallpaper at home suggest that her father died not as a martyr for the cause but as yet another senseless casualty in an endless conflict, with police harassment of African-Americans by the nearly all-white Philly force still continuing in '76. Jimmy's parroting of black macho, in turn, leads only to more spilled blood.
"They're all around us — ghosts," Iris mournfully admits to Marcus, who has come home to make amends with his own phantom menaces. In doing so, he and Patricia will act on long-simmering desires in an effort to leave the bloody past behind. But the more important relationship is the one between Marcus, a soldier disillusioned by the struggle but not without hope, and Iris, a wise, melancholic child whose innocence has been protected by her mother's necessary lies. Tenuously forming a bond with Iris while watching Popeye cartoons, Marcus is the first adult to honor her wish for answers — and to seek her out when she's hurting the most. Theirs is the most touching adult-child relationship in a film this year, with Marcus' temporary surrogate fatherhood a model of manhood far more complex than the rock-hard Panthers Jimmy is so desperate to emulate.