Tanya Hamilton’s ‘Night Catches Us’ captures a point in time

Film Critic

Writer-director Tanya Hamilton is interested in the way you can find yourself in a mess and then spend a lifetime working your way out. That is the hand she has dealt Marcus, " The Hurt Locker’s” Anthony Mackie, in “Night Catches Us,” her first feature film, which is now generating buyer interest after Sundance audiences embraced it over the weekend.

Set in Philadelphia circa 1976, Marcus has come home for his father’s funeral. As things unfold we learn he came of age during the Black Panther movement and essentially, he’s returning home a marked man finally ready to face his past.

Hamilton began working on the script when she was 31. Now, 10 years later, she’s brought it to Sundance, the only black female director to have a film here this year. In that time, Marcus has emerged as the central character and Hamilton has developed a strong voice that speaks of race in terms we don’t usually see.

The film captures a moment in time when the black community in Philadelphia was a layer cake of optimism and frustration just waiting for someone to light the candles on top. She’s given the film a vintage feel and set it all to a jazz-inflected score by classic Philly hip-hop group the Roots.

Marcus’ story is one of redemption, of making peace with who you were and what you have become. He is trying to find his footing in a place that has, in some ways, moved past him, and in others not -- new leaders, old grudges, different agendas. Kerry Washington plays Patricia, an old love with a back story as complicated as his. Within the heat of their reconnection, the story of race, class, love, death and new beginnings unfolds.

That she is telling stories at all was an evolutionary process all its own. The Jamaican-born filmmaker, who moved to the U.S. with her mother as a young child, thought she was going to be a painter, creating “very large, figurative paintings -- 13 feet tall.”

You can see that painterly eye throughout “Night Catches Us.” Working with cinematographer David Tumblety, Hamilton frames scenes so they feel almost like still portraits, as if we’ve come upon the actors just as they’ve taken a breath. The pictures do as much as the dialogue to provide the subtext.

The beauty of the imagery plays well against the difficult story Hamilton is telling, from the larger tensions between the community and the police, to the internal fights within what’s left of the local black power movement. “I’ve always been interested in politics, poverty and the working class,” says the director. “And the price you pay for dedication to a political movement.”

Hamilton sets the tone in the opening credits, turning a series of classic Black Power posters into a potent visual statement but “it was important to me to show the variations of class in black life,” she says.

As much as anything, Hamilton says she is drawn to the ordinary within black life, rather than the extremes. “There’s a distinct lack of content specific to what it is to be a black American, the variations in that experience, what life is like for people who are ordinary. Those are the stories I want to tell.”