Recent films such as “Carlos,” “The Baader Meinhof Complex” and “Che” have looked at the blowback and aftermath of the revolutionary adventures of the 1960s and ’70s across Europe and South America. With “Night Catches Us” writer-director Tanya Hamilton brings some of those same passions and upheavals to domestic shores with a look at the personal undercurrents that drive the political actions in one neighborhood in Philadelphia in 1976.
Hamilton’s film, opening in Los Angeles on Dec. 10 and available on video-on-demand, is a fictional drama but has some rough basis in historical truth. The film covers the story of a one-time member of the Black Panther Party (played by “The Hurt Locker“‘s Anthony Mackie) returning to his old neighborhood to rekindle a long dormant relationship with a fellow activist ( Kerry Washington, most recently seen in “For Colored Girls”). While the story isn’t based on any specific person, in her re-creation of the times and its conflicts, Hamilton was careful that the scenario, which plays out as something of an elegiac romance, remained plausibly grounded in the realities of those who lived through the era.
"To me, the Panthers have not been allowed to be humanized," Hamilton said by phone from Philadelphia, where she lives. "We didn’t want the movie to be about sexy black men with guns. We wanted to make a movie about people who had complexity, who were struggling and flawed. I didn’t want to make a movie that was about teaching, I wanted to make a movie that was complicated."
While the film points to certain historical facts – such as the government-sponsored disinformation campaign against the Panthers – Hamilton was also careful that the political never overwhelm the personal.
"It’s easy for me to speak about it today with nothing much at stake, but I feel like there is such great complexity in the people who were part of the Panther movement and I feel like that complexity has been lost," she said.
"The one thing I could do was to show that the party in its purest form, was a grassroots organization started by people who had a great commitment and connection to their community who really wanted to make a difference with their neighbors and kids. And like all political movements, things got complicated."