A curiously timed period piece, especially given the allegedly post-racial world we’re living in, “Night Catches Us” recalls the racially angry atmosphere of mid-’70 Philadelphia, where ex-Black Panthers are trying to escape their past and start anew. Acting, particularly by Anthony Mackie and Kerry Washington, is first-rate, but the story is as ramshackle as a South Philly tenement, with an equal number of structural violations. Interest in the history of the era could attract older urban auds, but the calculated outrage of the story is off-putting.
Marcus (Mackie), an ex-Panther, returns to his hometown to attend the funeral of his minister father, stirring up a nest of unresolved issues: enmity with his family, the belief among old colleagues that he ratted out one of their own, and the mutual torch being carried by Marcus and Patricia (Washington), the neighborhood’s activist/mother hen whose husband was the supposed victim of Marcus’ betrayal.
Marcus is the wise, weathered veteran of a civil-rights conflict; his tired wisdom is palpable. Patty’s cousin Jimmy (Amari Cheatom), on the other hand, is a can-collecting, scarcely lucid wannabe whose adoration of the Panthers drives him into confrontation and murder. It’s unclear how helmer Tanya Hamilton intends Jimmy to be read: as a fool, as misdirected, as a member of a generation deprived of the kind of street glory the Panthers carried, sometimes to their graves? “Night Catches Us” has all the hallmarks of a message movie, but the message is full of static.
Music by the Roots provides some of the momentum the narrative lacks, and young Jamara Griffin, terrific as Patricia’s daughter, Iris, is the window through which we view most of the stories and relationships. Wendell Pierce gives a solid if abbreviated turn as a Philadelphia cop and Marcus’ confidant, whose position as a black cop in a racially torn city isn’t dealt with at all. But that’s just one of the several loose plotlines wagging around “Night Catches Us.”
Production values are adequate; the archival footage of Black Panthers provides co-opted gravitas.