There is in every frame of NIGHT CATCHES US the vivid, demanding presence of the past that is more than just being set in the Philadelphia of 1976. Writer/director Tanya Hamilton uses close-ups of her stellar cast as they pause in conversation with one another and, as they gaze at one another, or into an indefinable space that only they can see, finds in the trace of the thousand-mile stare the weight of past events. Its a palpable sensation, even though those events are revealed slowly, with bits and pieces, sometimes contradictory, bubbling to the surface in snatches of conversation that the characters bite off as though the taste is that of a grief too profound to bear, too large to be cast off.
The return of Marcus (Anthony Mackie) to his close-knit neighborhood makes the past a thorny part of the present. Ten years earlier, his best friend, Neil, was gunned down in his hone by the police, and it was assumed that Marcus was the snitch who gave him up. Everyone except the woman who was widowed, Patricia (Kerry Washington). Far from anger, upon his return with nowhere to stay, she invites Marcus into the home she shares with her 9-year-old daughter, Iris (Jamara Griffin), the same home where Neil was killed and which she cant leave. Their shared past as Black Panthers doesnt explain it, but Hamiltons subtle realization doesnt make an explanation necessary. It establishes the essential aloneness Marcus is living, arriving alone and with one bag carrying all his belongings to the house from with his preacher father is being buried. The coldness of his brother, a strictly observant Muslim-convert. The warning, complete with the display of the handgun, from a former comrade to leave. That, plus the obviously strong bond Neil and Patricia share despite how their paths have diverged, his to prison, hers to a law degree and a settled relationship with another lawyer, transcends the need for explanation. Dialogue is spare, but precise, the actors catching and giving the signals of an unbreakable bond undimmed by time or events, though certainly complicated by both.
Hamilton examines more than just the past intruding on that relationship. She examines the evolution of the Black Panthers, and the impact of their history on those not quite old enough to remember the turbulent times that gave them birth. The promise of equality not fulfilled, despite a black detective riding herd on the white police in the neighborhood, and of Patricias law degree, which she uses to fight the small battles for justice that crop up in her circle. Talking sense, preaching calm, and sticking to her principles, even on lost causes like her cousin Jimmy (Amari Cheatom), a fatherless young man with a kid brother and a burning desire to strike a blow for justice, but without a sense of proportion or reality. Cheatom, with a performance that finds the perfect tipping point between the impatience and the idealism of youth, makes Jimmys story a cautionary tale with universal implications.
NIGHT CATCHES US works in maddening shades of gray and pure, compelling lyricism to tell a tragic story about events that are neither right nor wrong, but somewhere in between, events that underscore promises unfulfilled and the consequences large and small, events where its too easy to pick up a gun. The fireflies that rise up out of the grass on a soft summer night as a new tragedy is about to unfold are like the ghosts of the past rising up at a familiar echo.