Washington, Mackie Shine In Night Catches Us

But the film's script — set in Philly's own Germantown in 1976 — has problems

The place and time is Germantown, 1976. While the country and the city celebrate the nation’s bicentennial, Philadelphia is overrun by fractious violence between residents and police. It is two years before the death of a Philly officer that will result in the arrest of nine MOVE members. It is nine years before — and only eight miles away from — the infamous Osage Street bombings. It is the setting for director Tanya Hamilton’s feature debut, Night Catches Us.[SIGNUP]

Marcus (Anthony Mackie, The Hurt Locker) has returned home for the funeral of his father. After a few days, he attempts to reconnect with his best friend’s widow, Patty — now Patricia (Kerry Washington, Ray, The Last King of Scotland). While Patty eventually welcomes him home, their former Black Panther associates are not as hospitable. They are convinced Marcus was the snitch that caused his friend, Patty’s husband, to be shot dead by police.

It is not an easy film to watch. While the costumes, music (by Philly’s own The Roots), and directing are supple and engrossing, the subject matter is obviously difficult. Never shying away from the anger, director Hamilton makes the viewer experience every humiliation at the hands of the racist cops, every punch that Marcus receives. Even the use of archival footage somehow makes the story that much more real. And other than the cops, these characters and situations never go into stereotype. Each feel authentic.

This has all to do with Hamilton’s impressive cast. Washington is luminous and strong as Patty. Mackie is effortlessly adroit. The Wire alums, Jamie Hector and Wendell Pierce, are welcome characters (yet seeing them made me realize how mush I miss them — and that brilliant show). Special recognition should go to Jamara Griffin, who plays Patty’s daughter. Her lovely performance is quietly accentuated by her expressive, big eyes.

Unfortunately, what prevents the movie from truly encapsulating and fully embracing the subject matter is the script. At times the dialogue feels clunky and unnatural. This is especially evident during scenes between Marcus and Patty. While the talented actors do their best, many lines feel both rote and too writer-ly.

Also, I wish the script focused more on Marcus and Patty. As the picture progresses, more time is spent on a storyline involving Patty’s cousin. While evidently included to highlight the violence in the neighborhoods, it simply feels distracting.

Night Catches Us is a strong debut from a tremendously talented filmmaker — and, hopefully, will win her the Independent Spirit Award for Best First Feature. (In theaters.) My Grade: B-