A deft debut film, set in the Phila. of '76

Posted: October 22, 2010

Night Catches Us, Tanya Hamilton's debut feature about Philadelphia in the Bicentennial year, is an urban western set to the plaintive soul score of The Roots.

You know something's happening but you don't know what it is when weary Marcus (Anthony Mackie), the archetypal outsider, returns home to Germantown to bury his father.

His brother (Tariq Trotter) regards Marcus with thinly veiled contempt. The police in the racially polarized neighborhood circle the wagons around him. Neighbors spraypaint the word snitch on his gleaming black Caddy, an inheritance from Dad. Did Marcus inform on a brother activist?

Almost universally shunned or surveilled, Marcus is welcome only at the nearby home of Patricia (Kerry Washington), his former comrade in the Black Panthers.

Now an attorney and mother to the hungry neighborhood kids, Patricia is also the mother of Iris (Jamara Griffin), a preteen girl curious about Marcus' relationship to her mother. And about which potential father surrogate she should align herself with.

Making a remarkable feature debut, Hamilton distinguishes herself more as a filmmaker than as a screenwriter. While she elicits smoldering performances from Mackie and Washington, the movie around them is rather diffuse.

Set at a time when black pride often was greeted by white pushback, and, as the film shows, unspeakable police brutality, Night Catches Us hints that it might engage the politics of the period more than it actually does. Although it speaks to how politics polarizes communities, first and last Night Catches Us is a study in personal loyalty.

Marked by David Tumblety's evocative cinematography and pungent period details, the film makes excellent use of Germantown's leafy streets and its proximity to the woodsy Wissahickon.

Hamilton takes viewers beneath the film's handsome surfaces, ferreting out the secrets of the past by peeling back that wallpaper and other cover-ups of past violence. She handles her metaphors, and her actors, with a deft hand.

Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-54-2 or crickey@phillynews.com. Read her blog, "Flickgrrl," at 215-854-5402 or crickey@phillynews.com.

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