As soon as I noticed this indie film on the Cinematheque schedule, I became enamored with the title. Haunting and romantic, “Night Catches Us” stands in contrast to the colorless clichés and dull, literal titles of contemporary Hollywood releases. I mean, does anyone recall that “How Do You Know” is the name of the recent romantic comedy with Reese Witherspoon? The title is as forgettable as the film. And, while many flocked to see Tron: Legacy, there is certainly no mystery to the title, just like there is no Romance with a capital R to the title “The Tourist.” The latter film was clearly channeling those classic romantic mysteries enchantingly named Charade or Arabesque, but the lackluster title echoed the mundane script—obviously written by someone who wouldn’t know Romance with a capital R if it came up and bit him. (continued)
According to Tanya Hamilton, the young director of Night Catches Us, her title derives from an old Jamaican saying: Don’t let the night catch you. It’s a warning about the dangers of lingering too long, lest the night and its dangers catch up with you. As any night owl can tell you, it’s easy to get lost in the night, stumble down the wrong path, and become distracted by the darkness. The night can prevent you from moving forward like all those nice, normal folk who prefer the day. And yet, the night has its mysteries that are appealing, tempting . . . even comforting. The lure can prove irresistible to those willing to sacrifice the security of the day for the intrigues of the night.
The title and its meaning provide a metaphor for Hamilton’s portrait of a Philadelphia community that is falling apart during the mid-1970s. During this dark era of racism and violence, the institutions of law and order had crushed the Black Panther movement and ripped the community apart. Marcus, a former Black Panther, returns to Philadelphia for his father’s funeral. Before he left home, fellow Panther Neil was killed in a police shootout, and many believe it was Marcus who told the cops where to find him. Marcus runs into Neil’s widow, Patricia, now a civil-rights lawyer who is raising her daughter alone. He also encounters Patricia’s cousin, Jimmy, who grew up idolizing the Panthers and can’t let go of the dream or the mystique. Jimmy seems to be headed for his own violent confrontation with the police.
In unraveling the complicated relationships among the characters, Night Catches Us reveals the ways in which ex-revolutionaries struggle to put their radical pasts in perspective and move on. Some, like Patricia, channel their energies into working for the system, seeking change from within; but for others, like Jimmy and Marcus… well, night is catching up to them.
Director Tanya Hamilton appeared on NPR last month to promote the film and the following is excerpted from her interview.
On Using Philadelphia as a Filming Location
TH: “My sense is that Philly hasn’t changed all that much since the 1970s. The producers wanted to move the film out of Philly to New York at a certain point because it was just going to be cheaper for their tax credit. I really fought very hard to keep it in Philly, I think because I had lived here for eight years, and I said, ‘This is the perfect town.’ Germantown is this magical place, and it hasn’t changed for a really long time—for the good in some places, and for the tremendous bad in others. So we drove around and pointed at the blocks that made sense for us. There’s some cell phone towers that—if you look very carefully—we couldn’t get rid of because our budget was really tiny.”
On Capturing the 1970s On-screen
TH: “I worked out a lot of color stuff with the woman who was the production designer and the wardrobe woman and the cinematographer. We talked a lot about what colors we wanted to use, and once that was decided they went and did their thing. The people who worked on this film were all artists. And maybe that sounds like a cliche, but it’s really true—all of the lead people, the designer, the cinematographer, all were people who had their own vision, and I said ‘These are the colors I want. These are the details of the world.’ And they went and incorporated their own perspective.”
On the Powerful Imagery of the Black Panther Party
TH: “There’s some stuff from Fred Hampton* that I think is just beautiful. It’s him standing at a podium talking. He was from the Chicago chapter of the Panthers, and he was murdered by Chicago police in his bed. He was very young, maybe 21. I think a lot of people thought he was going to replace Huey Newton, one of the founders of the Panthers, in a way, because he was so eloquent and so far-seeing. He was a great community organizer. But there are some images of him sitting around with a gun . . . . There was one piece I loved, it’s a shot of Black Panthers at Fred Hampton’s funeral; we use it in the film. It’s a panning shot across all of their faces in their berets, and they have suits on—and it’s so heartbreaking, in a way. It looks almost like they have been really defeated, really kind of broken.”
*Night Catches Us is playing at Facets Cinematheque through January 20th (screenings Monday-Friday: 7pm & 9pm; Saturday-Sunday: 3pm, 5pm, 7pm & 9pm). Tickets $9 (free for members). Free parking available. For more info and to watch the trailer, click here.