"Night Catches Us," filmed in Germantown and premiered at Sundance,
focuses on a former Black Panther and a former radical coping with
life in mid-'70s Philadelphia.
By Sam Adams
Feb. 4, 2010
PARK CITY, Utah - Tanya Hamilton was born in Jamaica and lived in New
York and Washington before moving to Philadelphia in 2000. Even so,
she was instantly struck by what she refers to as the city's
Hamilton, whose first feature, Night Catches Us, had its world
premiere last month at the Sundance Film Festival, says she had to
fight a "small war" with her producers to film the story of former
Black Panthers adjusting to life after the movement's demise in her
new hometown. But the current resident of Northern Liberties was
determined to shoot in Germantown, where she lived when she first
moved to the city.
"There's a great authenticity to the town that I admire a lot and I
wanted to use," she said in Park City the morning after the film's premiere.
She recalled how, despite having lived in cities with large African
American populations, she was shocked when she moved to Philadelphia
at the number of black Muslims in traditional clothing she'd run into
in the street, an experience she incorporated into the film by
casting the Roots' Tariq Trotter as the protagonist's Muslim brother.
The decision paid off, as even one of her producers admits. At the
Q&A after the premiere, producer Ron Simons, who also plays a role in
the film, praised the reality of the city's textures, adding: "Anyone
who wants to shoot a movie in Philadelphia, like, do it."
Night Catches Us (which does not yet have a distributor) is set in
1976. It stars Anthony Mackie as a Panther returning to his old
neighborhood after years in self-imposed exile and Kerry Washington
as a radical turned community activist. Although the actors required
Afro wigs and period costumes, Hamilton said the production had
little work to do to make parts of Germantown look as if they'd been
untouched since the mid-1970s. "I think we repainted the outside of
Kerry's house, and that's it," she said.
Hamilton, who was awarded a $50,000 grant from the Pew Foundation in
2005 to work on Night's script, took the germ of the story to the
Sundance Labs in 1999, fully a decade before last June's shoot. Now
41, married, and with a 3-year-old daughter, her perspective on the
story naturally changed as her life, and the country, shifted.
The film, which was shot under the title Stringbean and Marcus,
started out as a coming-of-age story, centering on a young man (Amari
Cheatom) whose frequent confrontations with the police lead him to
adopt some of the Panthers' leftover rhetoric, with dire
consequences. But Washington's character, a civil rights attorney and
single mother whose husband was killed in a shoot-out with police,
grew in importance over the years, shifting the movie's focus toward
how former combatants adjust to life after the conflict has ended.
"It's interesting working on something for a long time, because you
change a lot, and the story has to make those changes, too," Hamilton
said. "When I started, I was very obsessed with the idea of people
coming home from a war. That idea stayed, but the coming-of-age end
of it waned. With a film like this, you have to figure out in an
almost psychiatric way where you're headed when the money comes
through the door."
Washington's character was inspired by Carol Green, a close friend of
the family Hamilton refers to as her Aunt Carol. Green, said
Hamilton, was a civil rights activist who was arrested for staging a
sit-down protest in the White House four days after protesters were
attacked by police in Selma, Ala., and took part in freedom rides
challenging Southern segregation. But, Hamilton said, Green had grown
jaded by the time she hired Hamilton's mother as a nanny, beginning a
friendship that eventually supplanted their professional
relationship. Although she continued to work with charities focused
on AIDS and domestic violence, Green was deeply disillusioned with
national politics, focusing her energies on social activism within
her own community.
"There was a larger politics that she was extremely jaded about,"
Hamilton said. "But then there was small community stuff, where the
door was always open. In the house I lived in as a kid, there was
invariably someone living on the third floor, and they weren't
necessarily people who were friends. Somebody just left Liberia and
had just come to this country, and they didn't know what to do, and
they didn't have any money, so they camped in our house for a year."
The twin sense of optimism and despair permeates Night Catches Us,
whose characters are haunted by their radical past. (The title comes
from a Jamaican expression about staying out after dark.)
Washington's house is invariably teeming with neighborhood children
dropping in for a free meal, but beneath her kitchen wallpaper are
bullet holes and bloodstains that serve as a constant reminder of a
darker time. Although the movie never explicitly references the
history of animosity between the black community and the city's
police force in the 1970s, Philadelphia natives will have no trouble
recognizing the simmering hostility that characterizes their interaction.
Hamilton and her actors say they were more intrigued by the story's
characters than its politics, but they also look on the film as an
opportunity to broaden the image of the Black Panthers, balancing
their revolutionary theater with grassroots efforts such as feeding
free breakfast to schoolchildren.
"Growing up, I had lots of friends who were radicals, so I don't
think about this part of history in an abstract way," said
Washington, 33, who is currently on Broadway starring in David
Mamet's Race. "But I think most people think about the Black Panther
Party in very caricatured terms. They think about black fists in the
air, but they don't think about the families and the relationships."
"A lot of people don't understand that as African Americans at that
time, we were at war," Mackie, 30, said in a separate phone call.
"The country declared war on us. So the Black Panthers really became
not only our physical but emotional defense, and our moderators
between us and the people who were attacking us."
Night Catches Us doesn't shy away from the Panthers' violent side:
Washington's husband took part in a cold-blooded murder, and the
group's corrosive rhetoric takes a toll on children too young to know
that the group's revolutionary stance was largely theater.
With their understanding of the Panthers further warped by the
government's own propaganda, the younger generation grows up
idolizing a poisonous stereotype, suggesting that the fallout of wars
- real or rhetorical - lingers long after the overt conflict has gone
cold. What interests Hamilton is not the undeclared war so much as
its collateral damage, the smoking hole left in a community's soul.
The 10-year gestation of Night Catches Us allows the movie to land at
a particularly opportune time, when the country is, if not talking
about race, at least trying to figure out how to do so. Hamilton, who
threads the film with snippets of Jimmy Carter speeches, chose 1976
for its symbolic value as a moment of hope, when it seemed as though
a new president might follow through on his promise to give the
government back to the people. (It also happens to be the year
Hamilton's family emigrated to the United States, a fact she was
unaware of until it was pointed out to her.)
Hamilton allowed that the parallels to the Obama administration only
go so far. "I was thinking more of the sense of hope, and not the
imminent failure," she said.
But there's also a sense that despite the distance between then and
now, the landscape hasn't shifted much.
"I feel, very clearly, that a lot of the country has moved past where
we were at when the movie was set, but a lot of the country has not,"
Mackie said. "If you take out the bell-bottom jeans and the Afros and
don't change anything else, people would be hard-pressed to believe
this isn't our reality."