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If you're ever looking for proof of the sorry state of things for talented black actors in Hollywood, take a look at Anthony Mackie and Kerry Washington, two attractive, brilliant actors who, despite a decade of work onscreen, have barely scratched the surface of recognition with most audiences. The two teamed up once before in Spike Lee's She Hate Me, and now bring their dynamic screen presences together once more in Night Catches Us, a 1970s set drama that manages to feel a little limp despite best efforts on behalf of everyone involved.
Writer-director Tanya Hamilton has spent over a decade working on the film, and the effort shows in her detailed recreation of a black Philadelphia neighborhood in 1976, where tensions between the cops and the residents are still running high just after the ascension and downfall of the Black Panthers. Mackie plays Marcus, a former Panther who had to leave town years earlier for reasons left unexplained until the third act. Coming back to the old neighborhood on the occasion of his father's death, Mackie is called a snitch by former friends, squabbles with his deeply religious brother, and hesitantly reconnects with Patricia (Washington), a single mom and former Panther whose priorities have shifted to simply protecting her young daughter Iris (Jamara Griffin) in such a tumultuous climate.
As a romance heats up between Marcus and Patricia, her young cousin (Amari Cheatom) is attempting to revive the violent side of the Black Panther movement, a decision that can only result in disaster. In fact, it's the inevitability of that tragedy that slows down the entirety of Night Catches Us-- rather than watching real characters attempt to define themselves at the end of a movement, it feels more like we're watching a series of pieces set up to create a Big Deal near the end of the film. Despite Mackie and Washington's chemistry together, their romance seems obviously doomed, just as the cousin constantly embittered and purchasing a gun basically has a target on his back for the sake of the cops.
Hamilton's decision to depict the aftermath of the Panther movement is inspired-- revolutionaries are fascinating, but we rarely get to see what happens to them once they set down roots. Earlier drafts of the film put more focus on Iris's point of view, and it's hard not to regret not seeing that version; while Marcus and Patricia's romance can be touching at times, it's Iris's generation that will be impacted by what happens in the film. Clearly Hamilton had many good ideas in the long journey of making this film, but too few of them get clearly expressed onscreen.
Thanks to its historical bent and name-brand actors doing excellent work, Night Catches Us will likely show up in theaters at some point, but won't act as the kind of defining moment that both Mackie and Washington have deserved as actors for years. As Hamilton finds her legs as a filmmaker I hope she continues telling these under-remembered stories, but also that she's able to express more clearly her passion for them.
For more of our Sundance 2010 coverage, click here.