Part social issue drama, part ghost story, Tanya Hamilton's casually gothic debut feature mines novel terrain. Night Catches Us is set in a mostly black Philadelphia suburb in 1976, though its "end of Act One" takes place before the action even begins. After several years of inexplicable absence, Marcus (Anthony Mackie) has returned unwelcome for his father's funeral. Nobody has forgotten that he snitched on a cop-murdering, executed local legend, a Black Panther whose wife Patricia (Kerry Washington) Marcus moves in with. He encounters nothing but hostility in the town, from gang leader DoRight (The Wire's Jamie Hector) and the violently confused Jimmy (Amari Cheatom), the best friend of Patricia's daughter, who is starting his own "vanguard war on pigs" as a kind of homage to race wars past.
It's about aftermath and negotiating with the past, and the open wounds left by recent extreme Black Pantherism. One microcosmic scene tidily sums it up—seeing some loose wallpaper, the daughter Iris (Jamara Griffin) rips off a thread, then keeps ripping, revealing an ominous black splotch and bullet marks. Hamilton isn't quite as drastic as Iris; she reveals the characters' secrets slowly and methodically, testing the audience's loyalties with each revelation. Her use of black and white footage of radical 60s protest is thankfully subtle and minimal, and it's a necessary reminder of the past racial upheaval that underscores the present drama. Mackie, so good as the sniper-soldier in The Hurt Locker, is likewise excellent here. The role might've tempted righteous grandstanding, but Mackie sustains a recognizably flawed and complex humility throughout. The whole thing plays out like theater, which is not a film-crit putdown, only a testament to the layered, dialogue-driven storytelling and graceful subtlety that propels this minor miracle.
Opens December 3