Night Catches Us: Film captures Philly in Black Power 1970s

By Donavee Chappell
Contributing Writer

Tanya Hamilton’s new film Night Catches Us has won honors for the writer/director before it was even produced. The screenplay earned Hamilton a Pew Fellowship in the Arts Grant, and she has a fellowship at the Sundance Institute, home of the renowned Sundance Film Festival where the film debuted earlier this year.

A synopsis of the film, from the production notes: “In 1976, after years of a mysterious absence, Marcus (Anthony Mackie, The Hurt Locker) returns to the Philadelphia neighborhood where he came of age in the midst of the Black Power movement. While his arrival raises suspicion among his family and former neighbors, he finds acceptance from his old friend Patricia (Kerry Washington, Ray) and her daughter.

“However, Marcus quickly finds himself at odds with the organization he once embraced, whose members suspect he orchestrated the slaying of their former comrade-in-arms. In a startling sequence of events, Marcus must protect a secret that could shatter everyone’s beliefs as he rediscovers his forbidden passion for Patricia.”

Night Catches Us was completed thanks to funding from Minnesota organizations. I spoke with Tonya Hamilton during a local screening of the film about the Black Power movement and the African American experience. “In a way, I’ve reinterpreted the Black experience,” she said.

“I grew up in Maryland and moved to New York,” Hamilton recalled. “I had never been to a place where there were Black Muslims, not like New York.”

Hamilton’s New York memories influenced her later; Night Catches Us was set in another eastern metropolis with a strong Black radical activist history:

Philadelphia, where the film was shot.

“[The financial backers] wanted for monetary reasons to move the filming to New York, and I said no. I had to fight to keep it in Philly,” she said. “There is no place like Philly.”

There is no place like “Philly” — maybe Chicago or Detroit in some ways — but Philadelphia has a unique history of conflict and resistance between Black people and police, leading to radical Black activism.

While talking with Hamilton, I found her to be a real down-to-earth person. In my opinion, Night Catches Us is a sleeper flick that will put her in position for rapid growth, and we should expect great things from her in the near future.

Magnolia Pictures distributed the film; they have a history of backing Black films such as A Good Day to Be Black and Sexy, Diary of a Tired Black Man, Harlem Aria, Herbie Hancock-Possibilities, and Tears of the Black Tiger. Night Catches Us is scheduled to be released in theaters in December.

Donavee Chappell welcomes reader responses to upentertainment2010@gmail.com.