One of the more promising debuts in recent American cinema, Tanya Hamilton's Night Catches Us barely made a noise with critics when it came out last fall. Considering how parched we are for expressions of the variousness of the black experience, the neglect was unfortunate. The movie, out on DVD this week, covers terrain rarely touched by the culture: the long hangover from the ecstatic peak of Black Power militancy. With a subject as sexy as the Panthers, a filmmaker could easily drift into histrionic and stylistic indulgence. But Hamilton displays cool and finely modulated control. Hers is a patient film about deflated hopes, a period piece that inadvertently captures the vibe of the present.
The film is set in Philadelphia in 1976. Marcus Washington (Anthony Mackie) returns to the family home for his father's funeral after years in exile. But the former Panther receives a frosty welcome. We learn that he left town years earlier under a cloud, bearing an ignominious label from his comrades: snitch. Even as he tries to keep a low profile, the remnants of the organization, led by DoRight (Jamie Hector, aka Marlo from The Wire), circle him warily. The only one happy to see him is Patricia (Kerry Washington), also a Panther in her younger days and now a lawyer and upstanding member of the establishment.
A living emblem of how fervid radicalism gets smoothed into liberal reformism, Patricia retains her ideals amid a crumbling city. The Panthers have become little more than a disorganized clique trafficking in criminality and the occasional unproductive swat at the cops. Working within the system, Patricia has found a semblance of purpose in her new role as respected community leader. But the past weighs heavily. Her 10-year-old daughter, Iris (Jamara Griffin), has begun to ask questions—particularly about her absent father. He never once appears in the movie, but the former Panther's presence haunts its frames. It's eventually revealed that the cops gunned him down in Patricia's living room—echoes of Fred Hampton—while Iris was still a baby. And many in the party think they know who informed on him: Marcus.
Night Catches Us isn't so much concerned with radicalism as its aftershocks. Among the most mythologized—and most feared—of '60s rebels, the Black Panthers have been preserved in the collective memory via images that are largely sensational, veering between idolatry and demonization: gun-toting black men in black berets, * radical chic personified or, later, a movement plunged into chaos, the exemplar of a leftism that careered into lawlessness. Even now, the image of menacing Panthers bullying helpless whites haunts conservative dreams: Witness the Fox News obsession with the New Black Panther Party's alleged campaign of voter intimidation, which amounts to little more than the deplorable acts of two party members outside a Philadelphia polling place. (It's worth noting that the New Black Panther Party, an entirely unsavory outfit, has nothing to do with the original Panthers, as those Panthers have taken pains to point out.)
Hamilton deploys those remembered images of Panthers past cannily, wallpapering her movie with slick iconography from the halcyon days. The relics of the period—archival footage, posters, comic books—don't just bring back the past but serve as talismans for a new generation seeking purpose. When Patricia's young cousin, Jimmy (Amari Cheatom), looks at the paraphernalia, his eyes light up. Here are the Panthers as the radicals in the universities and the oppressed in the inner cities saw them—in the words of Todd Gitlin, "James Dean and Frantz Fanon rolled into one."
But Hamilton is more interested in interrogation than idolatry. She summons those glamorous images (including some posters by the Panthers' Minister of Culture Emory Douglas) to juxtapose them with the messier reality of the left. "To me, the Panthers have not been allowed to be humanized," Hamilton has said. "We didn't want the movie to be about sexy black men with guns." As if to underscore the distance traveled from those days of rage, Hamilton depicts a world of familiar domesticity. Her characters move through cluttered kitchens, inviting porches, homey living rooms. The occasional gunshot and crime may violate the setting, but the will to preserve family and community is still strong. It is a portrait of a neighborhood clinging valiantly to its dignity amid white flight, unemployment, and incarceration.
But how to preserve that dignity is a matter of dispute. Night Catches Us tackles the contested legacy of Black Power. When Patricia talks to Iris about her Panther past—and the cop-killing her father was involved in—she stresses mournfully, "That's not who we were." She represents the Panthers of the free breakfast programs and health centers, activists drawn to the community-organizing potential of the movement. DoRight stands in for the militant wing, the part of the movement where activism gave way to thuggishness. It is that legacy, as much pose as outlook, that sets young Jimmy's tragic course:
Even as she rubs the romantic sheen off resistance, Hamilton never lets you forget that the reasons for it have not disappeared. The reality of urban black life—shuttered stores, dilapidated factories, aggressive police—is rendered unsparingly. If Spike Lee urged his audience to do the right thing, Hamilton's message is more ambiguous: There may not be much we can do. That's the reality that confronts Marcus: a black man constricted by his environment but exhausted by revolution, the impulse toward change overwhelmed by the need to just walk away from the whole mess.
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.)