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Night Catches Us -- Film Review

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PARK CITY -- There is something chasing the characters in "Night Catches Us," and that is the personal and social history of the Black Panther Party. Set in Philadelphia in 1976, Tanya Hamilton's impressive debut feature examines the tangled web left behind in the community after the demise of the Party. Driven by Anthony Mackie's powerful performance and a thumping soundtrack, the film could catch the attention of an urban theatrical audience.

"Night Catches Us" plays like a brief history of an era. Seeing the corner grocery store and hearing the Philly beat supplied by the Roots, you can almost feel like you're back in the '70s. But Hamilton is not interested in a broad social history as much as the personal story of people trying to find their way out of the past so they can move ahead with their lives. Some of them don't make it.

Marcus (Mackie) is an ex-Panther who returns home for the funeral of his reverend father. Gone for four years, he doesn't receive a warm welcome from his Muslim brother or most of his former running mates. Accused of being a snitch in the police slaying of a Panther, he is instantly at odds with his neighborhood and his past.

Also part of his past is Patty (Kerry Washington), the wife of the murdered man. They seem to have a mutual attraction that has smoldered over time, but Patty is now a lawyer and community activist taking up causes and feeding the neighborhood kids, an activity the Panther Party started.

The less positive legacy of the Panthers is embodied by Patty's cousin Jimmy (Amari Cheatom), a boy on the verge of manhood with no male role model to follow. Filled with anger and nowhere to channel it, he is a powder keg ready to explode.

Much of the story is told through the eyes of Iris (Jamara Griffin), Patty's 10-year-old daughter. She is trying to make sense of all the events that have shaped and continue to shape her young life: her father's killing, her angry cousin, her reticent mother, Marcus' arrival and the violence still plaguing her neighborhood. It's a lot to chew on for a young girl -- and a young filmmaker. Hamilton, who also wrote the screenplay, does fine once she has her story up and running, but the beginning of the film is a bit slow and the characters are hard to follow until the director eventually ties these random lives together.

It's a little-told yet compelling time in our history, when Jimmy Carter was about to become president and bring new, ultimately unrealized, promise. Hamilton uses this as the backdrop for her dramatic story. Hamilton focuses on the positive, often forgotten, accomplishments of the Panthers, but one wonders if she has also forgotten what was reported to be the rampant sexism in the Party.

Nonetheless, the film is compelling as it dramatizes the confusing and contradictory impulses in the black community during that time. Hamilton is dealing not only in politics, but sexual politics -- and the merging of the two.

Shot in muted tones on location in Philadelphia by David Tumblety, the film looks great and captures the gritty reality of the moment. Production design by Beth Mickle makes the houses feel authentic and lived in. And finally the music helps make the era and story come to life.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival
Production company: Simonsays Entertainment, Gigantic Pictures
Cast: Anthony Mackie, Kerry Washington, Jamie Hector, Wendell Pierce, Jamara Griffin
Director: Tanya Hamilton
Writer: Hamilton
Producers: Ron Simons, Sean Costello, Jason Orans
Director of photography: David Tumblety
Production designer: Beth Mickle
Costumes: Maren Reese
Music: The Roots
Editors: Affonso Goncalves, John Chimples
No rating, 90 minutes