Technically, it’s very sound. The acting is strong. The directing by writer/director Tanya Hamilton shows much promise (some problems with pacing, I’d say) . The film, set in 1976 Philadelphia, looks and feels authentic. The streets, the decor, the fashion, the hair all put you in the right frame of mind.
But man oh man is Night Catches Us dull.
The story is that Marcus (Anthony Mackie) has returned home to attend the funeral for his father after years of self-imposed exile including a stint in prison. Thugs believe that Marcus, prior to his exodus, was the rat who snitched on a Black Panther Neil who killed a cop and was ultimately gunned down by police.
Marcus is given a cold shoulder by his brother, who offers to allow him to stay in their parents house (which the brother is selling) if he fixes it up.
Meanwhile, Marcus reconnects with his old flame Patricia (Kerry Washington), who has a precocious 10-year old daughter with the late Neil.
Patricia’s teenage cousin Jimmy has fallen afoul of some cruel, racist cops, and Jimmy begins to look to the faded ideology of the Black Panthers for inspiration. Jimmy gets a gun, and looks to shoot a random cop to prove his worth.
There’s a lot of good elements, but they don’t quite mix to become a compelling film for my tastes. Some of the points of tension linger and go underdeveloped. The menace of local thug Dewayne toward Marcus comes on strong, then all but disappears. “Who ratted out Neil” is pretty obvious early on. Jimmy’s descent from frustrated, mistreated youth to cop killer feels forced and rushed.
Marcus is a great, compelling character, and Anthony Mackie does a great job playing him. One character I enjoyed was Patricia’s respectable and uptight lawyer she’s hooked up with before Marcus comes back. I was curious what would happen to him, but he disappears at the halfway mark and, other than one late night stalking incident, is gone for good. Other than that, this is just kinda there.
One thing that bothered me is that I was desperate for one police officer to not be corrupt or racist or cruel. I’m not saying there are not bad cops now nor that there were bad cops back in the 70s who preyed on black people, but give us one honest, decent police officer, please! It seems the impression I got from Night Catches Us is that every cop is willing to plant evidence, violate civil rights, and en masse shoot a defenseless suspect without remorse. *Sigh*
My colleague Brian made a great point, that if they had showed Night Catches Us first Monday night at the Charlotte Film Festival instead of after the great documentary on the Civil Rights movement Soundtrack for a Revolution (which Brian reviewed here). For me, Soundtrack for a Revolution is a must see — Night Catches Us is an okay film that didn’t quite click for me.
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