Night Catches Us is a perfectly adequate movie. It is a solid B effort. It is firmly and purposefully decent. Tanya Hamilton made a film that strives to be nothing more than what it is. There are no moments that are painfully terrible or any that are remarkable and poignant. It stays the course of cromulency from start to finish.
A former Black Panther, accused of snitching to The Man and getting his best friend murdered in a hail of gunfire, returns to Philadelphia in 1976 to attend the funeral of his father. He meets up with the wife of his dead best friend and it plays out exactly as you would expect. There are threats, there are stolen kisses, there are dramatic speeches, and someone gets killed. The actors say their lines, scowl and cry when they are supposed to, and then move on. It unfurls like someone putting up Christmas decorations: the same lights, the same tinsel, everything going pretty much where you’d expect it. But there’s a certain comfort, a certain simplicity and confidence in the story that elevates it above mere cliche. For all 31 flavors that Baskin-Robbins sells, they will always carry vanilla and chocolate. This film doesn’t want to be an exciting new flavor, though the hints of potential exist below the surface. This film is chocolate ice cream. It’s alright, and there’s nothing wrong with that, because at least it’s not bad. But it’s hard to get really worked up and excited in a review of adequate.
Marcus (Anthony Mackie) returns to Philadelphia after a four-year absence to attend his father’s funeral. Nobody is there but his brother, who’s planning on selling their father’s home. Marcus used to be involved in the Black Panther movement with his best friend Neil and Neil’s wife Patricia (Kerry Washington). Marcus snitched to the government, which led to a bloody gunfight where Neil was shot down, and now Marcus is a pariah. Patricia lives with her daughter in the shadow of Neil’s death, in the very home where he was murdered, still stuck in the same Philly neighborhood that took her husband. Patricia cares for her cousin Jimmy (Amari Cheatom), a teenager who collects cans to make ends meet and who has a penchant for mouthing off to the police about his rights. Everyone hates Marcus, except for Patricia, who knows the secret about what really happened.
Philadelphia is a perfect backdrop for this story, as many of the neighborhoods are mired in time and still look like they did in the days when Stallone was jogging up the stairs of the Art Museum. Hamilton does a terrific job of intercutting stock footage of the race riots and the protests in black and white with her actual narrative. It’s a story about the Black Power movement, but it’s also a personal story about a small area of Philadelphia and the people affected by the aftermath. Nothing is unexpected, it’s like reading a favorite book again or singing a Christmas carol. You know this story, you know everything that’s going to happen, because it’s a story that’s been told and retold. But somehow Hamilton’s story doesn’t feel like old hat, more like old sneakers that are broken in and comfortable. Anthony Mackie and Kerry Washington continue the solid base of work they’ve always done, two actors who are just damn good at what they do. Amari Cheatom is a pleasant surprise as the fiery tempered Jimmy, as are the supporting performance of “The Wire” alumni Wendell Pierce (The Bunk), as a hard-ass policeman who used Marcus as a snitch, and Jamie Hector (Marlo), as the wanna-be tough guy Do-Right. It’s kind of excellent to see Jamie Hector playing against his usual menacing serpent character, as Do-Right is simply thug-lite.
Again, Night Catches Us is just a well-made, well-worn tale. There are some nice narrative features, such as the animation of a propagandist Black Panther comic, one of the ones that the Feds used to pepper the neighborhoods with to incite violence. Tanya Hamilton has a very confident presence on the page and behind the camera. She shouldn’t have a hard time drawing in funding for a follow-up effort. I sincerely hope that in her next outing, she puts forth harder effort. You can tell that she’s capable of blowing up and doing something phenomenal. But Night Catches Us isn’t that film.