Though Anthony Mackie isn't actually present at this year's Sundance Film Festival, the star of one of the latest indie success stories in Hollywood-- that would be guaranteed Oscar nominee The Hurt Locker-- is part of the festivities anyway. He's the star of Tanya Hamilton's Night Catches Us, a drama set in the mid-1970s at the end of the Black Panther movement, when optimism about the future has led way to contempt a violence both amongst the members of the movement and toward the police.
Mackie plays Marcus, who left town years earlier and has returned for his father's funeral only to be shunned as a snitch. As he rekindles his relationship with Patricia (Kerry Washington) and her 9-year-old daughter Iris (Jamara Griffin), we learn why Marcus had to leave town, and how much regret the earliest Black Panther members have about the violence that resulted from their work.
I talked to Mackie before the festival started (and before I'd seen Night Catches Us) about his ongoing career in indie films, his personal attachment to the history of the Black Panthers, and working with Matt Damon on his next movie, The Adjustment Bureau.
What makes you decide to take on roles in small movies like this and The Hurt Locker?
The more interesting plots and dynamic characters are in independent film. And that's what filmgoers have shown they want to see.
And that's why you're sticking with independent film?
Yeah. I don't get the opportunity to play a role like Sanborn in a studio film. When you look at some of the meatier roles I've had, those are the directors who are willing to take a chance.
Was the character the appeal of Night Catches Us as well?
It was. When I read the script I thought it was a dynamic character, and I was really excited about telling that story and living in that period of time. I feel like one of the most most misunderstood periods in American history, and groups in American history, was the Black Panther party. Their story is so poignant and so beautiful and should be so appreciated, but it's overlooked and misunderstood.
How did Tanya Hamilton as a first-time director approach you?
She wrote the script, and when I read the script I knew there was something with the character that I could do. I identified with the character. Managing with his manhood, I identify with his views and morals. that's what sold me on doing the film. I was looking forward to being a part of it.
Can you tell me about the character?
Basically, it's a guy who was a part of the Black Panther movement who moved away from home to save his neighborhood and save his best friend. He has to come home now and deal with the realization of people in his neighborhood not liking him too much, and the harsh reality of his father passing away.
Clearly the Black Panthers meant something different by the late 70s than they did in the late 60s.
By that time the Feds had came in and started doing their propaganda campaigns against the Black Panther party. The local police in Philadelphia and Oakland and other areas were basically terrorizing them. Arresting them, beating them, shooting at them, burning down their homes. Asking why they were doing these feeding of children programs, clothing programs. Basically it was the downswing of the party. A lot of the younger guys were becoming more violent, and a lot of the older guys were pulling away from the younger members.
And you're between the generations?
Exactly. It shows the younger guys when we were 18, 19, the stupid choices we made and how we're dealing with them, and moving forward from them now that we're in our 30s.
At the time the film takes place, you had just been born. How much of this did you know before jumping into this movie?
I knew a lot about it. Luckily enough, my brother, when he was in college, would send me tons of literature on black history and American history. When I got the script I knew a great deal about the Black Panther movement of Philadelphia and the history of everything going on, the cops that had been killed, what had transpired between the Panthers and the police. I thought it was a story that's really being neglected. it's American history, but it seems so much now that parts of American history are not being recognized. When I read it it was definitely something that I felt had earned the right to be told.
How did the music that The Roots came up with work for this?
The great thing about The Roots is their level of artistic expression, the level of possibilities with The Roots is endless. I think that's why they're the one and only surviving hip hop band. They've been able to transform and transcend the idea of genre music. It's truly a great fit.
You and Kerry Washington are teaming up for the second time. And this is your second sex scene together. That's got to be weird.
Not at all. I've known Kerry for a long time; I've known her since 2000 when she got out of George Washington. Kerry and I, I love Kerry like she's my sister, and I treat Kerry like she's my sister. The great thing is we respect each other and look out for each other. if I could do every movie with Kerry I would be a happy camper.
So what should we expect from her in this film?
A lot of times her talent is overlooked because she's so beautiful. Some actors fall into the trap-- Brad Pitt, he's so talented, but everyone always talks about how handsome he is. With Kerry, people are like "Look how beautiful she is," but she's damn talented. In this film you get an even dosage of both. You get to see her looking at her finest, but you also see her bringing the pain of this mother in the Civil Rights Movement.
Is it nerve wracking to be waiting for your film to be sold?
I just enjoy it. I realize that people buy movies for all completely different reasons. I know if somebody does not buy the movie, it has nothing to do with my performance, my background or my pedigree. I know I did 100% of the work. If you want to buy a good movie, you'll buy a good movie. If you don't want to buy a good movie, you'll buy a Twilight movie.
You just wrapped on The Adjustment Bureau right? What was the experience working on that film?
I was playing basically a liaison to fate. Matt Damon was my subject. George Nolfi, who wrote it, also directed it. The great thing about it is, in Hollywood, certain people are very good at keeping their lives and who they are very private. I've never met anybody as down to earth and cool in Hollywood than Matt Damon. It's surprising when you work withs omebody, you get to see who they are. It's refreshing to see that somebody on his level can be a cool, down to earth, talking shit over a football game kind of guy.
That's got to be a relief.
It's a huge relief. You're still that dude from Boston who likes to have a beer and a slice of pizza and make a five dollar bet on a football game and if you don't pay I get to punch you five times. It's really interesting, and I think it shows in his work. The work that he did in this film, that carries over into that as well. It's going to be a pretty good fucking movie.
For more of our Sundance 2010 coverage, click here.