By Bill Wine

By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060

How do political and civil rights activists adjust to life after the conflict is allegedly over and get on with their lives?  Is it like soldiers returning from combat?

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The racial relations drama Night Catches Us catches us wondering about those questions and wishing we were getting a bit more insight into the answers.

Anthony Mackie and Kerry Washington play former members of the Black Panthers struggling in the summer of 1976, as the Bicentennial is celebrated in Philadelphia after the demise of the movement.  Both are haunted by their past.

Mackie is Marcus, who returns to his Germantown neighborhood to attend his father’s funeral following four years of unexplained, self-imposed exile.  It’s obvious that he’s not even close to welcome, as the behavior of many locals makes clear, especially those who still suspect him of having been responsible for the death of one of their own as an FBI informant back in the day.

One person who is happy to see the supposed snitch is Washington’s Patricia, a civil rights attorney and single mother who used to be a radical and whose husband was killed in a police shoot-out.

Now she lives in a house that is pretty much open to neighborhood children, especially for free, healthy meals, all the time.

Racial polarization continues to characterize the neighborhood, evidenced by the tension that still exists between black youths and white police officers.

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Initially titled “Stringbean and Marcus,” Night Catches Us borrows its permanent title from a Jamaican expression about staying out after dark.  But the movie itself stays out after dark.

Debuting writer-director Tanya Hamilton balances her post-Panthers script and her relatively quiet film with both a sense of hope and a contrasting sense of hopelessness, intercutting snippets of archival Panthers newsreel footage as she mixes the personal with the political.

But too much of the time we feel we’re watching something that’s taking place after the drama has already unfolded. There’s certainly thoughtful reflection about the past throughout the film, but in the present that we experience we’re too aware of how much more drama took place in the past that it recalls.

Furthermore, neither of the two crucial characters is as fully delineated as they need to be, to some degree because of the array of supporting characters that the crowded film makes room and time for.

But we’re interested in the two primary characters and feel cheated when the focus shifts elsewhere.

Mackie and Washington, skilled and compelling performers, do what they can to flesh out the principals.  And their presence and chemistry as estranged colleagues who have gone their separate ways even though there’s obviously something romantic brewing between them gets our hopes up about where all this is leading.

Alas, although the period detail is thoughtful and nostalgically interesting, Hamilton’s screenplay never quite makes us feel the connection between the personal story we are watching play out and the momentous sociopolitical events of these characters’ remembered past.

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So we’ll recall 2 stars out of 4 for an honorable but limited period drama about injustice and integrity.  Night Catches Us doesn’t quite realize its ambitions, but it certainly catches our attention to see what promising director Tanya Hamilton does next.