Have you ever seen something and gone, "My GOD! Why has no one told this story before?" It doesn't happen often in the realm of film, and when it does happens, it almost feels subversive. Night Catches Us tells of an African-American neighborhood in 1970's Philadelphia, where race issues haven't gone away entirely, but fighting the good civil rights fight has given way to middle class compromise. We soon learn that the scions of the community were formerly Black Panthers, and despite the systematic dissolution of that group, the members still betray their past lives in uncomfortable ways and in slips of the tongue. But there are no illusions; the movement is dead. It was lost, lost when politics gave way to violence and rage.
It's amazing how much is crackling just beneath the surface of these people's lives - fighting the revolution now means nothing more than keeping the kids out of trouble and out of the hands of the cops.
The story centers around two in particular: Kerry Washington as Patricia, an attorney for the underprivileged, and Anthony Mackie as Marcus, the man accused of betraying the group to the cops, leading to the death of one of its members. He knows better than to show his face, but had no choice when his father died. When they meet, sparks of history fly; these sparks do not go unnoticed by her daughter, constantly searching for an answer to the question of why her father was murdered.
The beauty of the film is that writer/director Tanya Hamilton passes no judgment on the Panthers themselves; she neither lionizes nor demonizes them. She focuses on the conflict within, how even within a particular movement there are conflicting ideologies, economic differences, philosophical differences. When we learn about history, we are taught to see movements of people as solid blocs. Hamilton reminds us otherwise, that in the end there were only two broad movements fighting for civil rights, and just as in politics, there's no way that every single person agrees with every core tenet of the movement they join.
But this is a love story, not a polemic. The peculiarities of Black Power politics certainly set the stage, but it doesn't make the story. The story is about what happens after. What happens when reality is forgotten and a younger man decides to take up the mantle without any understanding of the failures or the challenges, and only hawks the talking points and brandishes the gun. About what happens when someone you once regarded as a brother or sister has mutated beyond recognition, either warped by inner darkness or compromised to society.
It's a fascinating rewrite of history; for every peaceful revolutionary movement, there is an equal and opposite violent movement, but the second is omitted. We learn about Martin Luther King but not about the Black Panthers. We learn about Mahatma Gandhi but not about Subhash Chandra Bose. There's a strong case to be made that both sides are necessary for a movement to succeed.
Finally, it's been a dreadful year for diversity in the Academy Awards. I have now seen Kerry Washington in two stellar performances from last year, and am shocked by the banality of the best actress nominations this year (and am strongly fighting the urge to make another dig on Natalie Portman's horrendously flat performance in Black Swan). Anthony Mackie is also terrific. I think that the lack of diversity speaks as much to the quality of mainstream films made about and for minorities; they are loud, melodramatic and hysterical.
That's why it's doubly important to draw attention to movies like Night Catches Us, where no one needs to shout to get your attention, where no sobbing is necessary to leave the audience devastated. That's why this story is so surprising, and so valuable. It's not a perfect movie by any standard; it's more slight than perhaps it needs to be. But for what it illuminates, it's precious.