Whoever said that talking about politics, religion or sex on a blind date was a bad idea could just have easily applied that rule to movies. Or maybe like Peter Venkman said, it’s more of a guideline than a rule. I caught two movies recently that were the flip side of the same coin: independently financed romantic dramas ripe with political intrigue, both written and directed by women under the age of 40. Let’s see Blockbuster Video devote a shelf to that genre.
Night Catches Us (2010)
Directed by Tanya Hamilton
Written by Tanya Hamilton
Produced by Ron Simons, Sean Costello, Jason Orans
Tanya Hamilton was born in Jamaica and arrived in the United States with her mother at the age of 8, growing up in Maryland. A young painter for many years, she started making short films as an undergrad at The Cooper Union in New York. When it came to ideas for a feature film, Hamilton was inspired by a close friend of her mother’s, who had once organized a sit-in at the Johnson White House to protest racial violence in Selma and received a 1-year prison sentence as a result. Struck by how you could spend the rest of your life paying for a single decision, Hamilton workshopped a script at the 1999 Sundance Film Lab Institute. She assumed that like classmates Darren Aronofsky (Pi) and Debra Granik (Down to the Bone), getting a feature film off the ground might take her two years at most.
Hamilton’s script — which she began writing at age 31 — was set in Philadelphia 1976 amid the ashes of the once potent Black Panther Party. A 10-year-old named Iris begins to piece together events that led to the murder of her father, a Panther shot by the FBI on information furbished by Marcus, an ex-Panther who returns to Philly to bury his father. Marcus rekindles his relationship with Iris’ mother Patty, now an attorney. A Black Panther project without guns, an adult romance as opposed to a shoot ’em up, Hamilton spent years listening to financiers tell her “no” until her fiction writing husband urged her to look for private investment from the black community. In June 2009, Night Catches Us finally began shooting in the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia.
Playing DVDs on my MacBook, I’ve noticed a link between the quality of a movie and whether I finish it in one sitting or not. If I can make it to the end credits without ever hitting the pause button, that’s worth a 5-star rating. It’s in there with The Taking of Pelham One, Two, Three as far as I’m concerned. Taking a break to jump on the world wide web and listen to music or watch Australian backyard rasslin’ on YouTube means something is awry; I lop off one star each time I hop on the web. Taking multiple nights to finish a movie indicates systematic failure by the filmmaker and if I send it back to Netflix unfinished? The ship done sunk. Night Catches Us is not Casablanca, but it’s more than seaworthy; credit Tanya Hamilton and her painter’s aesthetic to keeping my fickle senses peeled to her debut film.
With lush strokes, Germantown PA circa 1976 stands apart from any community I can remember seeing in a film. Pinned between the idealism of the ’60s and the realities of the next decade, uniformly black, the ghetto I was expecting seems overwhelmed instead by nature; trees, creeks, empty space. This gulf carries over into the lives of the characters, who struggle to find a common ground while holding onto the secrets they carry. Vintage R&B platters make cameos on the soundtrack while Philly’s own The Roots provide the low key musical score. It’s such a short, simple story that Wendell Pierce seems under nourished in his role as a crooked cop, but Anthony Mackie and Kerry Washington are credible as the fated ’70s lovers. Tanya Hamilton demonstrates a fantastic eye and ear for adapting her world to film.
Rotten Tomatoes “Tomatometer” average among 964 users: 60% for Night Catches Us
Metacritic “Metascore” average among 18 leading critics: 65 for Night Catches Us
What do you say?