Night Catches Us is a fictional snapshot of the aftermath of the Black Panther era in American politics, making it one of the most important movies in film history, if you ask me. On the surface, this film is about what happens when Marcus Washington (Anthony Mackie) – a former Panther – comes back to Philadelphia to mourn his dead father. But in reality, it’s about the humanity of those affected by the success of COINTELPRO – a “series of covert and, at times, illegal projects conducted by the FBI aimed at surveilling, infiltrating, discrediting, and disrupting” left-leaning and subversive American political organizations. [Wikipedia]
Using Philadelphia as the setting for the remnants of one of many local chapters of the Black Panther Party, director Tanya Hamilton trusts the audience to fill in the critical details of a story that illustrates how that you can’t go home, and keeping traditions with the best of intentions can keep you stuck. Using narrative alongside archival footage, photos, and audio, she masterfully and thoughtfully connects the threads of the alienation of young black men, the truth that is owed to young black girls, and the humanity of the women of the Movement who, at the end of the day, just wanted to love and be loved.
We see Patricia (Kerry Washington) using her experience as a Panther and a lawyer as she hosts potlucks that raise funds to post bail for jailed black folks, makes breakfast for the children of the community, and mothers her young daughter Iris while trying to shield her from the truth of how her father died. We see sparks fly when Marcus is disappointed to learn that his brother – who has joined the Nation of Islam – sold their father’s house. The most touching part of this story is how we learned that Marcus sacrificed the comfort of the life he had always known out of love for Patricia. When the labor capital of an entire movement that spread across the nation falls to pieces, what does everyday life look like for those who participated and survived? In my mind, this is where the importance of Night Catches Us lies: as a historical document, even if it’s fictional.