Things Have Changed, Snitch. Monday Movies Is In Charge Now.
One kind of movie accomplishes great effects by finding a rich setting and sitting still in it. Consider David Gordon Green’s debut, George Washington. Another kind of movie is the ensemble piece that again, subordinates the clockworks of plot in favor of a mounting atmospheric pressure, like Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam. That film’s meager storylines accumulated momentum by being set against serial killer David Berkowitz’s New York rampage, the bicentennial, and a heat wave. Tanya Hamilton’s understated indie drama, Night Catches Us, walks its unique subject matter–the fallout in black communities from the fall of the Black Panther Party–outside the bounds of conventional storytelling, and in its stronger moments, creates atmospheric elements that suggest these other two films.
At its center, Night Catches Us tells the story of three people connected to and recovering from the height of the Black Power movement during its aftermath. Marcus is returning to Philadelphia in 1976 after a long time away. Patricia has remained there, becoming a criminal defense attorney. ”Do’Right” has too, becoming a thug. Do’Right blames Marcus for selling out their mutual friend Neal (and Patricia’s husband) to the police, who shot him to death in a raid after he killed a police officer. That’s when Marcus left town.
A critical, though peripheral, role is played by Patricia’s nephew Jimmy, for whom Neal lives on as a martyr. As the world becomes crueler and more seemingly dominated by abusive white policemen, Jimmy exhumes the militant spirit of the Panthers, eventually sporting a beret and, fatefully, a gun.
The storytelling is slow but visually lush. Hamilton has a keen eye for urban forests. The credits suggest that the picture was shot entirely in the city of Philadelphia, but the city blocks are treetopped and weedy, and children play in hidden creeks.
Amid the atmospherics hides a potboiler–a triangle built on secrets and mistrust, a tinderbox city, an angry kid with a gun. Night Catches Us‘s reserve in deploying those elements isn’t entirely to its credit. Here, history is a hangover, a memory painful in its proximity but equally immobilizing. The treatment of crime, community and the law in the wake of Black Power is sophisticated, even-handed, and sad (not to mention found nowhere else in contemporary American film), but the sociological portrait is almost too close up to allow the story to flow from character and action. The graceful atmospherics stifle the story. It’s a shame, but not a disqualifying one.
Coming Attractions: Read the Book or Watch the Movie? featuring We Need To Talk About Kevin vs. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Also: Ludicrous, or Ludicrous and Unwatchable? featuring Thor vs. MI4: Ghost Protocol! Which is Monday Movies’ way of saying we had a little more time to watch than to write this week.
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