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02/11/2011 12:07 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Chronicling Black Panthers, Award-Winning Director Knows Where Night Catches Us

It's Black History Month. And before that, in between January blizzards, the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's inauguration was celebrated (after all, he was the president who ushered in civil rights legislation), as did Martin Luther King Day. These events flagged the struggle to eliminate segregation of and discrimination against African-Americans.

And now, first-time feature filmmaker Tanya Hamilton brings up another chapter of African-American strife -- a darkly controversial one concerning the remnants of a Black Panther cell based in Philadelphia in the mid '70s.

A fine film, Night Catches Us made it to Sundance in 2010, where it won the Grand Jury Prize for a Drama, continued on to 2010's New Directors/New Films, has had both a theatrical run and soon a DVD release and is also nominated for an Indie Spirit Award.

The story details a former Black Panther [Anthony Mackie] who returns to his hometown when his father dies and confronts various ghosts from his past, including his former Panther collaborators and ex-lover [Kerry Washington], now a local attorney fighting for her community.

The film garnered Hamilton both a Gotham and Independent Spirit Award nom, as well as an award last night for the year's best woman filmmaker from the inaugural Athena Film Festival being held this weekend at Barnard College.

A former painter doing big abstractions, the diminutive director made Night Catches Us as both a personal exploration and as an examination of the other side of the civil rights struggle -- the black power movement -- an effort that reveals many of the contradictions and ambiguities of that struggle that aren't spotlighted enough.

Q: How do you feel after working on this for so long -- now that it's virtually over -- was it a long, strange trip, like, "I never want to see this film or talk about it ever again" or this isn't your frame of reference?

TH: It's neither actually, which is very interesting. I can be honest; I don't like the constant day-to-day. That's hard for me. I have this child who just turned four and I want to give her and my poor husband all my attention, and then I desperately want time to try to finish my screenplay because I've got to try to make another film.

Q: You don't want it to be another "40-year" long process.

TH: To be frank, I should get a job. Those are all things I definitely should do. The volume I'm not into, but the idea that people will get to see it and I'll be the recipient of what they will think; I'm interested in that.

Q: This went through Sundance Lab and was with you as a story idea for a long time. Was it the culmination of other ideas; what made it so important to you that it became the project that got you into Sundance? Where was it in the string of your screenplay writing efforts?

TH: I had written a feature before actually, about a guy that goes to Jamaica and builds the country's first bowling alley. I tried and tried but [it didn't get made]. We tried for about two and a half years to get it done. We couldn't get the money and it was like a half a million dollar budget.

Q: That doesn't seem like a lot does it?

TH: It was nothing. We could have been kidding ourselves but I think we could have done it.

Q: Was it meant to be a serious or comedic film because this one is not exactly what you'd call a comedic film.

TH: No, it was serious. I was obsessed with children so it was about a kid who had no father and mother and this American comes and builds this bowling alley. He could buy up the land but couldn't buy the water rights and the kid who owned the town's water rights was this kid. He had to seduce him in order to get it out of him but it ends up he's the one who's really seduced.

At the time I was interested in local heroes and I'm Jamaican. So that was the first thing I tried to get done and it was just hard. Obviously, I have a long history with complicated subject matter that doesn't get financed easily.

Q: At least this film deals with an interesting cultural convergence. It's straightforward in that it's essentially the dynamic between two people. And it deals with an issue that underlies a lot of people's experience. But it has nothing to do with your experience.

TH: I think that it's in [there] a very peripheral way but it's somebody else's history.

Q: You're not African American...

TH: No. But [Carol Lawson], who I talk about often, was my mom's dearest friend, and I grew up with her; she was essentially like my second mother. It was two black women in the '70s living in the same house with these three children and I often think about my childhood as we were always, me and my brother, like the immigrant kids, and my cousin, [Raquel] was Carol's daughter. But I think that [Steven] and I had this view into the African-American construct -- we sort of grew up with one foot in Jamaica and one foot here.

If you were to see my brother, in some ways I think he's much more the stereotype of the African American, but we each pulled pieces. People would always say, "Where are you from?" meaning what city, and that's because my English is from television.

So that's my experience here; taking things, whether it's from me personally or whether it's for the story, and weaving pieces of it into something else. I'm going to do this talk and I've had to get a lot of Carol's letters together on the sit-in that she did in the White House in '65.

I have this packet on the top of my bookshelf in my office and I remember when I found them she had this vast library downstairs in the basement. I would always go down there, this is when I was in high school after we had moved and they lived over there and we lived over here.

I remember finding these letters and thinking, "Wow, this is a letter from RFK and [here's] a letter from Jacob Javits -- fascinating." And then being fascinated with the ephemera kind of element in a way, but more moved by reading the letters, which I've now been rereading for this thing, of her to her mother during the six months that she's in jail.

Those letters are a microcosm in a way of what I think this film was about, but also it's also a bit about that transition between civil rights and black power, which is the section that I'm so fascinated by.

That she goes into jail, they get this sentence, they all think they're going to get like a $50 fine, which is what commonly happened when people were civil disobedient; you get a $50 fine. Instead, they're 21, 20, 19, and get this six-month jail sentence, and they're all shocked by it.

You read when she goes in to when she's about to get out, and there's this letter, it's like this seven-page rant to her mother, so contrasted by the optimism that she has when she goes in, and it's all about being lulled to sleep by non-violence.

It just was interesting to me how much she had moved, and I'm sure she had been thinking about all these things the whole time, but I felt like that was such a fascinating transition and I think all the characters in this film at some point go through that exact same thing. They start off where their parents are and they end up over in the other direction, but I think for very similar reasons.

Q: When did you decide what the plot would be about? How much of it needed to be documentary-like and how much needed to be fictional?

TH: All fiction. All I did was steal. I'd read a book, a little thread, that's a beautiful piece for a character, and I would incorporate. Really I just tried to read as much as I could. I didn't talk to anybody, fearful of taking somebody's history and being accountable, but really just taking as many threads as I could building these characters.

Structurally, I thought about To Kill a Mockingbird a lot; I thought about the structure of that book especially. Not even so much the movie but certainly the book, and looking at the solidified kitchen sink drama in the center of this larger political social backdrop.

I knew that structurally that's what I wanted to do. I loved that simple sort of construct. So I started on the construct level there, and I think with Carol and those threads I started on the character and I kind of shoved the two things together.

Q: The plot emerged from having the characters. So the plot came after you knew who the characters were?

TH: That's how I work and why it took me so long.

Q: I think of stories first and the characters emerge.

TH: That's good; that's a smarter way.

Q: Kerry Washington and Anthony Mackie had enough presence at the time you would have been thinking about this. Did you think of them as your stars right from the start? Or was it somebody that looked like them and then you found that they were who they were? It seems like this movie would be perfect for them given what they're interested in. They had worked together before this...

TH: They did. They have incredible chemistry actually, those two. They worked together on She Hate Me by Spike Lee. They have great chemistry.

Q: Did you know that when you thought of them?

TH: I had seen She Hate Me. I knew that they worked nicely together, but no, I had no idea.

Q: I could see why they would be doing this.

TH: I knew that [Anthony] would be great. I didn't know [Kerry]. I was always a fan, I had seen all of her stuff, but it wasn't like she was there and it was like oh how do we get her from five years ago. But Mackie I had known for at least four years.

He knew about the project, I had been thinking about him and thought he's a wonderful actor. So he was definitely on my radar and the project was on his. Then once we got him I think she became interested, which is great. And they're lovely together.

Q: Did you have lots of conversations about 1976 and the period. The film feels authentic and that's a tough thing, but did you worry about authenticity? Did you get neurotic about being that authentic or not?

TH: The good thing is I'm not actually very neurotic because I'm a little lazy, to be very honest with you. Too lazy to be neurotic. I believe so heavily in subtly. I hate things that are over the top unless of course it's my favorite TV show or something.

Q: That's why your pace is so languid -- that's "languid" instead of "slow."

TH: One man's languid, another man's slow. But I'm a believer in that because I felt I wanted to make a film that reflected the '70s in a lot of different ways. I wanted to make a movie about working class people and working poor people and I didn't want to embrace the stereotypes in a way of the '70s and the garishness. I remember.

Q: It wasn't as garish as you think.

TH: It's true. Although, I've got to say, I was born in '68, so I remember the '70s. And I think that that's a thing; I can't own a lot about this film in terms of the history. Again, [having been] born in '68, I didn't come here to American until I was 8 in '76. But the neighborhood, the world, is what I remember, and I felt that I could draw from it. That's the only kind of ownership I think in a way, in terms of history, that I could have in the film that's authentic, that's mine. And that house.

I remember; we had simple, black vinyl furniture. It black wrought iron and the cushions, and a Capricorn poster on the wall. When I thought about the look of this I went through all the old photographs and I looked at the background and looked at all the things on the walls behind, and that's how I felt like I could then communicate with the designer about what I wanted.

I also knew that that was sort of the tone in a way. I felt like my mom and Carroll had no money and they were working mothers, and though they were separated by class, my mother an immigrant, did not go to college, Carroll solidly African American middle class New Yorker from the Bronx, was at that point in law school.

So they had no money at all and they had no men, and so that was the construct that in as subtle a way as possible I wanted to emulate. And then I felt like that set the tone then for everything else. For the simplicity of how the actors were dressed with the colors that we used. So I think that that I can lay claim to. None of the history.

Q: Did you have fun buying old '70s clothes and trying to track down clothes? Or did you have to make new clothes? You had no budget; you had to go find them in the thrift stores.

TH: That's the secret in Philly. I didn't find anything; that was all the costume designer. She's from Philly so she knew where to look and she's amazing. She's just this great talent. But Philly, the wonderful secret is that it's the best thrift store town bar none.

Q: Having it in Philly makes this a story about America, not about New York or LA. It happened for all of us. You're doing a story set in the '70s about issues and people going through what they went through dealing with mainstream society, and then you see an election like this? Did it make you think, "I thought we were past all this?"

TH: I feel like everything is in massive cycles. The best recycling program we have is in our politics. There's great complexity in what happens to people who are working class and working poor, and that it's something I'm very interested in all the work that I do. I think the impact that it will have on those communities -- redistricting, etcetera, etcetera -- is going to be profound.

Q: You have to keep talking to get them to find in some of the next elections. I hope we just re-defeat the Republicans in the next election. But that's another story.

TH: I think that I'm pedestrian in a lot of the things I do, and feel like, "Okay, I can embrace that." As I filmmaker I feel I can redefine how we look at class and race.

Q: Did this create a bonding between the three of you -- you, Kerry and Anthony -- working with the kids.

TH: I don't think so. In some ways I had kind of a fear of actors, of not having anything to do with the actors. I had tremendous fear when I was about to step through the door to go and direct. I'd only made a short. You can prepare your entire life as a writer; it doesn't cost anything. As a director you direct a film when there's money to make one. I didn't have any friends who were actors; it just wasn't a part of my circle.

Q: And there you are directing actors.

TH: Not just actors, but actors who are working actors, really great actors, who come to the office with a level of professionalism that I was expected to come to the process with. If it was just an NYU student or whatever then I would have felt a little less freaked out. So I think I really came in with this sense of fear.

I tried to say [to myself] -- you have the tools, they're there -- and I knew these characters inside out easy. You ask me anything now, and I can tell you every detail, every back story or whatever, they're so charted in my brain. So you would think it wouldn't be a big deal and yet my self confidence was particularly challenged in those first couple of days because I was like, "What am I going to say to them?" So I think that was always a barrier for me in a way. But I felt like, by day three, I got it. I understood that I had it all in my brain, I just needed to tell them, and that was easy.

They are lovely people, receptive and very generous, which is good. When I couldn't fully articulate something they'd say, "This is what you mean?" and I'd say, "No, no, it's like this."

They would try to translate it, which was a very generous thing to do when actually what you want to hear is absolute clarity. That for me was my learning curve, just being able to have enough confidence, especially for the stuff that's already there. It's just sitting there; you need to pick it up.

Q: I don't want to ask, "Tell me what you think is the big theme here" but what part of this film's subtext is how our ideals are sometimes, if not damaged or destroyed, become inconsistent with our realities, and how do we cope with that understanding?

TH: Which I find interesting.

Q: This movie essentially asks who were the Black Panthers? Would we want the Black Panthers' mission to succeed because it was such a purist mission. Had they taken over a neighborhood -- what happens with people who have huge ideals -- do they become fascist in not accepting anyone who doesn't agree with them. That's the problem of the ideal versus the reality -- the clash that occurs when the two bump up against each other.

TH: That not only was true but it's so interesting if you think about what often brings [about] the demise of any movement -- it's usually the very nature of being human. What's interesting about the Panthers is that they are born out of family. Two guys connect emotionally, are able to come to the same kind of conclusion, and then, together, decide they're going to go and do this thing. They do it and build what is essentially a family.

Everybody was intertwined because they all had the same sort of collective desire. Even if they went about it in different ways, they fundamentally believed in the injustices that were being done to these very communities. One can be an anarchist and another can be a pacifist or in the middle, but they all come together in terms of human nature.

Then you had the FBI from the outside able to prey on that. I was in San Francisco with Bobby Seale a few weeks ago and asked him a similar question, "How did you feel about the end?" He felt like they hadn't failed at all, and he named all these people who were in the legislature -- like Bobby Rush out of Chicago, I think. It's interesting.

Q: Television reporter Pablo Guzman used to be in the Young Lords.

TH: That's interesting. I had no idea. Wacky. Wow. I think [Bobby] had a bit of a point. The larger thing imploded but all the fractured pieces off of it [succeeded]...

Q: I assume you've read lots of books, done lots of research and talked with lots of people about the period.

TH: Not before, not during, but afterwards...

Q: Will you revisit it again in a narrative or documentary?

TH: Who knows. I suck at documentaries so that wouldn't happen. I don't know; I'm happy to put them to bed at the moment.

For other stories by Brad Balfour go to: filmfestivaltraveler.com

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