Night Catches Us
written and directed by Tanya Hamilton
Magnolia Pictures, 2010
What happens when a revolution fails?
Set in 1976, Night Catches Us tells the story of Marcus, a former Black Panther branded as a snitch, returning home to Philadelphia to attend his father’s funeral. From its very premise, the story is about confronting the past. The past binds the characters together, but their history is also a history of separation. Their common story, personal and political, is one of broken trusts, severed friendships, martyred comrades, defeated hopes, and reluctant departures.
Marcus has been away for years, some of that time in prison. His friend Neil — another Panther — is dead, killed by the police. Neil’s widow, Patricia, is now a lawyer and remains committed to community service: one scene has her serving breakfast to all the neighbor children; in another she’s holding a fundraiser to bail out one of her clients. Patricia’s daughter, Iris, feels trapped — by her mother’s commitments, by the poverty and violence of her neighborhood, by the secrets of the past and the absence of her father. Other Panthers, like Dwayne “DoRight,” while never renouncing their old politics, have drifted toward small-time racketeering. Each of them must come to terms with what they have done and learn to live with what they have become. No one is sure how to move forward, how to cope with a past that cannot be forgotten, overcome, or regained.
Panther aesthetics pervade the film. Archival footage, rather than flashbacks, reminds us of the backstory. And the title sequence features photos of Panther leaders and animation based on Emory Douglas’s iconic artwork from the Black Panther newspaper. Later, another animated sequence draws from the (much cruder) illustrations of the Black Panther Coloring Book. These cultural elements are not incidental, but help to drive the plot: Jimmy, a young man struggling to make ends meet while facing persistent discrimination and police harassment, reads and re-reads the coloring book and adopts a pose based partly on its portrayal of the Panthers. Marcus, however, reminds him, “The feds printed these comics for people just like you.”
An alternative version of the scene included on the DVD is even more explicit: “It wasn’t written by the Party. It was printed by the feds to make us look bad to the people who were helping us. You realize that? . . . People believed that shit. Still do. Especially cats like you.”
It’s true, too. The coloring book was distributed as part of the FBI’s Counter-Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) targeting the BPP. In an effort to make the Panthers look bloodthirsty and dangerous, the feds sent the booklet, disguised to look like Party literature, to supporters of the free breakfast program. The book represents a deliberate distortion of the Party’s politics intended to create distrust and isolate them from their base of support.
Jimmy doesn’t heed Marcus’s warnings, though. Moved by the cartoons’ tough tone and his own romanticized idea of Panther history, Jimmy dons a beret and a leather jacket — he takes on the appearance, already anachronistic, of a Black Panther — and shoots a cop who had harassed him earlier. A manhunt ensues, Patricia’s house is raided, Marcus is beaten and arrested, and in the end, the police kill Jimmy.
The question the film poses, in its sad, quiet way, is this: What is the lasting legacy of the Panthers? Is it the macho posturing and the violence? Or feeding children breakfast? The heroism and the hope? Or the infiltration, the distrust, and the lies?
The question, however, already suggests the answer. Those are all part of the Panther legacy. Patty, and Jimmy, and DoRight, and Marcus — they all, in their different ways, for good or for ill, are carrying forward elements of the Panther philosophy, practice, and culture. But they are doing so without a movement — not in isolation, but not in communion, either.
Night Catches Us is a beautiful film. There is neither a wasted moment nor a false note in its entire ninety minutes. The characters are compelling, complex, well-drawn; each actor handles his or her role with depth and grace. Their performances are understated and subtle, even when there is conflict, even when there is violence. And careful period touches — the clothing, cars, and slang — avoid either caricature and or nostalgia. The film takes its subject seriously, and brings dignity and care to the treatment of its themes. The tone is neither polemical nor analytic, but meditative and lyrical. The pacing is that of a novel; the plot builds slowly and closes without the pretense of a solution. Marcus leaves much as he arrived, alone and regretful. There are no happy endings, because there are no endings. Movements fail; people die; life continues. Politics are important to this story, but it is the human drama — the sense of loss and defeat, the search for hope — that makes it memorable, that makes it art.
Yet the most interesting part of the film, for the purposes of this journal, is actually a DVD extra: the interview with Jamal Joseph. He tells of his experience with the Party in New York, from being recruited as a teenager, to supervising the high school cadre, to being arrested as part of the Panther 21 conspiracy case. As the case unfolded, the defendants learned that the Party leadership had been penetrated by the NYPD’s Bureau of Special Services. One infiltrator was Gene Roberts, a security lieutenant in the Party and, before that, Malcolm X’s bodyguard. The other was Yedwa, Joseph’s mentor, the man who recruited him.
“It started to make sense as time went on, because Yedwa was the most volatile member of the Panther Party. So he’d be in meetings, for example, where we’d be talking about a building in Harlem where we wanted to help the tenants organize. . . . He’d be like, ‘Let’s just find the landlord’s house and blow his house up; let’s burn his stuff to the ground.’ He’d always be that person, kind of pushing for this military action and for this, you know, for violence — where we’d be talking about organizing the people around their needs. So it started to make sense in retrospect. But when you saw it at the time, for us young brothers, we’d be all like, ‘Yedwa’s a bad brother. . . . He’s one of them militant brothers.’ And as a kid, you kind of wanted to be like that.”
Joseph relates his own experience to the events of the film, and reminds us of the present need for something like the Panthers. He says:
“I identify with Jimmy’s character, because he’s young and he’s angry, and he doesn’t have focus. He understands the path to manhood connected to standing up to injustice and to racism. . . . What he didn’t have, that I was fortunate enough to have, was that structure. The Black Panther Party came along at just the right time, so that I could understand that that rage and that focus had to be tempered with love for the community, and that the best way to deal with that anger was first of all to focus on what the big problem was, which was the system. . . . The best way to deal with that was not to go out and do some individual action that we called adventurism, that would get you killed and probably get innocent people killed — but to be part of an organized force in the community that was making a difference.”
Jimmy’s tragedy is precisely that of the frustrated individual, with no movement to join, no hope for victory. His rebellion can only be a kind of gesture, an aestheticized representation of something that he longs for, but which no longer exists.
Night Catches Us is set in 1976, in the aftermath of the Black Panther Party’s decline, but before the full cost of defeat can really be understood. Police militarization and prison expansion were still in their early stages. The crack epidemic and the “war on drugs” — which together decimated the black community — Reaganomics, and (this being Philadelphia) the MOVE bombing all lay ahead.
With this periodization, the film shows us two pasts. The film’s “present” — 1976, after the Party’s decline — is our past. But there’s also the further past, which is “past” in the story — the period a few years earlier, when the Party was thriving and it felt like change was imminent. In a sense, then, the film also confronts us with two futures. There’s the “future” that has become our present. And then there’s another, an alternate future implied by the sense of possibility that inspired the creation of the Black Panther Party in the first place.
What if the revolution had succeeded?