Philadelphia, the late 1970s, tarmac-melting heat and a sweet and plaintive soundtrack composed and performed by The Roots. Night Catches Us is a simmering, dangerous look at passion: political fervour, family loyalty, violent anger, romantic love and community pride. Set in the immediate aftermath of the civil rights movement’s demonstrations, amidst ongoing police prejudice and a grassroots urge for armed resistance, a doe-eyed young man named Marcus saunters home. He’s served time in prison and has apparently betrayed a fellow Black Panther activist to the police after the murder of a local officer. He resumes a friendship with Patty, the driven lawyer he had been in love with – herself the grieving widow of the friend Marcus is said to have betrayed – and tries to curb the seething anger and breakout violence of a young local friend, Jimmy, who taunts the police as they taunt local black men.
Night Catches Us is meticulously crafted, from its gorgeous music and hand-drawn opening credits to its use of actual civil rights and Black Panther movement footage, newspaper articles and reportage photographs. Hamilton has captured the poignant contrasts of the city Marcus, Patty and Jimmy inhabit, from the shifting brightness and warmth of the summer to the crumbling warehouses, abandoned gardens, wide streets and emerging wealth and aspiration. The houses are beautiful but the feelings and prejudices are ugly, although they’re offset by Hamilton’s flair (or should I say flares) for visual humour. Every last detail of this style-defying decade has been recreated, from the two tone plastic radio to the high-waisted pants and red-lit dive bars.
But the panache of the late 70s and the joys of summertime are no compensation for economic reality, emotional isolation, ongoing persecution and the weight of the past. Jimmy and some of the local kids have to hustle for odd dollars, collecting up cans only to be cheated out of payment. The local police do a bit of vicious harassment as part of their lunch hour fun. The former members of the Panthers ostracise and threaten Marcus, whom they regard as a traitor, while Patty is caught between her grief, her own Panther history, her current cleaned-up incarnation as a community advocate and go-between (best line for Patty: “I can talk to them. They listen to me”) and her desire for a better life for her children. Although the acting is excellent across the board, it’s strange that there are no women characters in the film except Patty. Not a single adult woman speaks, apart from her, while her partner, Marcus, Jimmy and their antagonists and cronies get to snap out smart 70s slang and give voice to their frustration. Patty’s daughter, Iris, has one big conversation about….yep, another man, her father, whom she never knew. Poor Patty, for all her power as a role model, only gets to look aggrieved, sigh a lot, tell her kids off, hide her love for Marcus behind brittle anger and cover for men in trouble. It’s strange, because the featured original footage of the civil rights demonstrations shows countless women striding, marching, chanting, singing, declaiming and protesting in huge and marvellous numbers.
Although the general pace is reserved, almost stilted, the action plays out in brief, sharp scenes which tighten into an extremely impressive and multilayered vision of the psychological, economic and social effects of discrimination. The characters in this film are not saints, nor should they be. They are human beings with differing reactions to their experiences. Some are on the side of anger and violence, some have taken their anger and used it as motivation to improve things for all, others are confused while yet others withdraw into sadness or spirituality. Broad-scale rage is sublimated by infighting and factionalism; love and longing are hidden in games, sullenness and silence. There is a stunning scene in which a young man stands amidst the rubble of a house – the rubble itself standing amidst beautiful nature – and tests a tiny handgun, at first recoiling and flinching and then growing steadily more confident, more pumped up.
From this scene onwards what seemed like a slow, sober portrait of a society becomes a thrilling and disturbing series of smackdowns, twists and shocks which should make Night Catches Us a stunning classic of crime, politics, race, punch and drama.