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Aftermath: The Black Panthers

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"Night Catches Us" explores the outer edges of both the Black Panther Party and the Black Power Movement as it waned in 1976. By choosing to portray an era of ebbing of energy for that movement, director-writer Tanya Hamilton sidesteps the politics and passion that gave the movement its power and, instead, focuses on the diminished aftermath: individual disappointment, secrets and a truncated--and misunderstood--legacy of Black radicalism.

The result is a movie that is subtle in its tone, action and message. Set in Philadelphia, the film directs our attention to Marcus (played by Anthony Mackie), who is returning home, after being away for four years, after his father's death. But the welcome is low-grade hostile, even from his own brother and from many of his former acquaintances. We gradually understand that they all suspect that he was a snitch who is to blame for the murder of a fellow Black Panther, who was also his friend.

It is through these connections with the past that Marcus tentatively feels his way back into the neighborhood. At the local bar, run by Dwayne "Do-Right" Miller (played by Jamie Hector of "The Wire" fame) there is the most violent reaction. But he finds a welcome at the home of his friend Patty (played by Kerry Washington), who is continuing many of the traditions of the Panthers as a public defender and as someone who often feeds the neighborhood children.

Hamilton does a good job of evoking a neighborhood character and a sense of time and place in the Germantown section of Philadelphia, where there are large, aging frame houses sitting on green lawns. This is a neighborhood where everyone knows each other and everyone is connected somehow. In her debut effort as a feature director-writer, Hamilton makes each and every relationship complex, far more complex than each character. In "Night Catches Us," we get the sense that some monumental time and opportunity has passed, some war has been fought--but we only discern the vague outline of the battle. The characters are the walking wounded in the aftermath of bleak light and compromised life prospects.

Both Mackey and Washington are likeable, seasoned actors who give this film their best but, unfortunately, are constrained by the plot and dialogue. Hamilton's script, which she worked on at the Sundance Institute, is technically fine but lacks the historical gravity, and perhaps the budget, to infuse the movie with more substance.

Still I applaud her effort to tell the story, to expand the cookie-cutter stereotype of the Black Panthers and give them lives, loves and a great sense of loss. "Night Catches Us," which is playing at art houses around the country and is available on itunes, is not the definitive Black Panther movie--we are still waiting for that. But it does offer one vision for the aftermath of an earth-shaking era in not only the Black community, and the United States, but in the world.

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