The last few years have brought a succession of novels that interrogate the '60s left and the fallout from its failures: Dana Spiotta's Eat the Document, Hari Kunzru's My Revolutions, Peter Carey's His Illegal Self. And the movies have given us the culture's iconic '60s burnout. Lest we forget, the Coen brothers' greatest creation, the Dude, is also their most political: One of the authors of the original Port Huron Statement ("not the compromised second draft") and a member of the Seattle Seven ("there were six others"), adrift in Bush père's New World Order. Night Catches Us fills a glaring gap, limning an experience—that of the rueful black ex-radical—conspicuously missing from the national narrative.
But it's not so much her subject but her sensibility that makes Hamilton someone to watch. Hardly lacking in style—no movie with a kick-ass Roots soundtrack can be accused of that—Night Catches Us opts for a softer register. Hamilton directs Mackie and Washington to turn the volume down. They move slowly, talk quietly, the hangover from the '60s made literal by their mien. It's smart casting—we may not get the details of Marcus and Patricia's former radicalism, but their movie-star looks serve as a reminder of their outlaw-glam past.
Set in the summer of the bicentennial, Night Catches Us evokes a country in decline. The death of Marcus' father doesn't just initiate the proceedings—it's a metaphor for the fading away of an entire generation. Hamilton depicts a black community in upheaval, the older folks passing on, the '60s generation dispersing, and a new cohort of black youth learning the wrong lessons from the past. Marcus and Patricia's respective fates—the black man disaffected and on the move, the black woman digging in her heels to raise a family and prop up a community—serve as allegories for the trajectory of black America in the decades since the Great Society. On the horizon for Patricia and Marcus is Carter. Reagan comes next. The sense of resignation that shrouds Night Catches Us is anticipatory: Their America won't be seeing morning for a while.
Correction, Feb. 3, 2011: The article originally stated that the Black Panthers wore green berets. In fact, they wore black berets. (Return to the corrected sentence.)