african-american directors series/film fatales #11: night catches us (tanya hamilton, 2010)

Here’s an example of the kind of film Hollywood and the Oscars ignores, which given I watched it the day after the Oscars means it points to some of the problems with inclusion that were highlighted in this year’s ceremony.

Night Catches Us features some major actors. Anthony Mackie is now known for his participation in the Marvel Universe, but even before Night Catches Us, he appeared in some big movies like The Hurt Locker. Similarly, Kerry Washington was still a couple of years away from the career-changing Scandal, but she had been in movies for a decade, notably in Ray. Toss in Jaime Hector and Wendell Pierce from The Wire, and you’re off to a good start.

The film was the first, and thus far only, feature film directed by Hamilton (who also wrote the screenplay). It played the festival circuit, bombed in limited release, and I’d say its best chance now at an audience is through streaming services (it’s on Netflix for a few more days). When your movie is five years old and you’re still hoping for Netflix, you’re fighting a losing battle. Which means nothing about the quality of the film. In fact, Night Catches Us was nominated for 8 Black Reel Awards, winning five: Best Film, Best Actor and Actress, Best Screenplay, and Best Original Score.

It did not get any Oscar nominations. And no one really expects that it would ... a low-budget indie film made by and about black Americans that dies at the box office? This isn’t Straight Outta Compton.

Hamilton tells an interesting story, about Philly in 1976, about characters with Black Panther affiliations in their past. There are tense moments, but ultimately, it’s a character study. Hamilton uses old photos and newsreels to take us back to the Panthers, which helps provide context. While she isn’t avoiding a political statement, it’s not a Grand Message. She is after something “smaller”, showing how the lives of her characters reflect their times, which makes its own kind of political statement.

There is some good acting and some good dialogue. In the end, Night Catches Us is too slow ... even at 90 minutes it felt long. It is the kind of movie that deserves a bigger audience, and at times it feels like a miracle that it even got made. I wish it was better.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)

(Here is a letterboxd list of movies with African-American directors.)


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