Night Catches Us (**)

By Dwight Brown NNPA Film Critic

For some, the 1960’s Black Panther Party is a complete enigma. For those people who are looking for a revealing glimpse into that social/political/cultural movement, this poorly conceived ode to the Panthers is not illuminating. However, strong performances and some tight family drama make this period film worth viewing.Time to comb out your Afro brother-man and get with the program. It’s 1976 in inner city Philadelphia. Marcus (Anthony Mackie, “The Hurt Locker”) returns to his old neighborhood after being absent for many years, and he is not well received. Folks think he’s been away “doing time” and that he snitched on the Panthers. Only one person reluctantly welcomes him, his old friend Patricia (Kerry Washington, “Ray,” “The Last King of Scotland”). She opens her home and her heart. Patricia and her young daughter warm up to Marcus, as he encounter outward hostility from the neighbors.

Though the Panther movement has lapsed, one mentally unstable young man named DoRight (Jamie Hector, TV’s “Heroes) persists in agitating “the man.” He plots discord, arms himself for that day of reckoning and puts Patricia, her child and Marcus in constant danger. A Detective Gordon (Wendell Pierce, “Waiting to Exhale”) keeps a watchful eye. He may be a brother, but he is on the side of strict law enforcement, he’s with “the man.”

Writer/director Tanya Hamilton first made a name for herself with her short film “The Killers,” which won an award at the 1996 Berlin International Film Festival. She developed her script for “Night Catches Us” at the famed Sundance Institute. The results of this paring are dubious at best. Hamilton gets the feel of the era near perfect, with aide from cinematographer David Tumblety (“Sweet Land”) and production designer Beth Mickle (“Half Nelson”). She pulls deep, probing performances from Mackie and Washington. And though her dialogue is not genius, it serves the storyline, which delves into the characters and their desire to move on with their lives though the past encumbers them.

This is not a blow-by-blow story about the Black Panther Party. Once you get over that and embrace the character-driven plotline, the movie has depth. The film’s biggest transgression, which makes it hard to digest and will leave you scratching your head, is it’s wavering tone. Archival clips of the Panther Party establish history and a past. One or two clips would be fine, but the over-abundance brings momentum to a halt. There is a sequence in which Patricia’s daughter looks at a comic series. The film brings the series to life, in live-animation. What does this have to do with a period piece the about the last vestiges of the Panther Party? Nothing. The lack of focus and the odd blending of genres make this film a potpourri and not a solid dramatic effort, when drama is its only strong suit.

The supporting cast helps set a tone of distrust. Washington gets a lot of screen time, and for the most part her portrayal is on target, making you almost forget her nervous, unfocussed performance in “For Colored Girls.” She proves resoundingly that even in a poorly constructed film, she can empower a role. Anthony Mackie is carving himself out a niche. He is thoroughly compelling, and is compiling an impressive and varied filmography that exhibits his great versatility:” “We Are Marshall,” “Half Nelson,” “8 Mile,” “The Manchurian Candidate.” He brings a level of decency, charm and intelligence to his Marcus character that elevates the movie, which needs all the help it can get.

If you are waxing nostalgic for the Black Panther Party, rent the DVD “Panther” directed by Mario Van Peebles and starring Kadeem Hardison, Bookeem Woodbine and Courtney B. Vance and Angela Basset. It’s not perfect but it will do until perfection comes along. “Night Catches Us” tries to hone in on the aftermath of the Panther movement, and it’s misses it’s target by 8 miles.