Writer-director Tanya Hamilton's striking debut is the rare recent American independent film that goes beyond the private dramas of its protagonists, imagining them as players in broader historical moments. Set in Philadelphia in the summer of 1976, Night Catches Us examines the failed hopes of '60s liberation struggles through former Black Panthers Patricia (Kerry Washington), now a lawyer, and Marcus (Anthony Mackie, mesmerizing as always), returning to Philly after a mysterious four-year absence. Interspersing snippets of iconic Black Panther footage, though resolutely opposed to easy nostalgia, Hamilton considers the near-impossibility of disentangling the personal from the political. Patricia's wise, melancholic 9-year-old daughter, Iris (an impressive Jamara Griffin), wants to know what really happened to her father, another Panther and close friend of Marcus' who was killed by the police when she was a baby. Refusing to romanticize Black Power, Hamilton chooses the riskier path of examining its emotional and political fallout. The bullet holes and bloodstains Iris uncovers after peeling away a strip of wallpaper suggest that her father died not as a martyr for the cause but as another senseless casualty in an endless conflict, with police harassment of African-Americans by the nearly all-white Philly force still continuing in '76. As Iris sorts out fact from fiction, Marcus is the first adult to honor the child's curiosity. His temporary surrogate fatherhood is a model of manhood far more complex than the image of rock-hard Panther militancy that Hamilton so smartly interrogates. (Monica)
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