Night Catches Us [review]

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Night Catches Us
by Anthony Gayle

“Night Catches Us” takes us back to a small, predominately black section of Philadelphia during the mid-1970’s. The Vietnam War had just come to an end but, for many members of the “Black Empowerment Movement,” there was an equally deadly war going on right outside their door. Attorney Patricia Brown (Kerry Washington) spends most of her time representing neighborhood friends as well as bailing out her cousin, Jimmy (Amari Cheatom), who seems incapable of holding his tongue in the presence of police abuses. We learn through a series of conversations that Brown’s husband was shot to death by police years ago in a sting operation. Consequently, she is left alone to raise a precocious daughter named Iris (wonderfully portrayed by Jamara Griffin). While trying to keep some semblance of a normal life, she is reunited with Marcus Washington (Anthony Mackie) who has returned after years of being away to settle his father’s estate. We soon learn that Marcus has been branded a “snitch” by many in the community who believe that he gave information to the police that ultimately led to the death of Patricia’s Husband.

The possibility of informants or federal agents infiltrating and betraying black-led movements has always weighed heavily on the minds of many in the black community. To betray one’s own is an unforgiveable sin in this country. Recall that treason is the only crime specifically mentioned by name in the U.S. constitution (Article III) and it is punishable by death. The motto of the Marines, Semper Fidelis (typically shortened to Semper Fi), is Latin for “Always Faithful”. The idea of loyalty, i.e.faithfulness to those that matter to us, is central to this movie and our notion of what it means to be a patriot. This film, however, skillfully demonstrates that loyalty and disloyalty are not necessarily mutually exclusive concepts. To some extent, Washington’s character reminds me of Elaine Brown, former chairman of the Black Panther Party and spokesperson of the criminally underreported Georgia Prison strike that took place earlier this month. While she has brought much needed coverage to this issue, she has also been plagued by charges that she was a federal agent who purposely sewed seeds of dissent within her party. She has denied such charges, but the testimony of former panthers like Kathleen Cleaver (widow of Eldridge Cleaver) and Geronimo Ji Jaga has made it tough to shake those allegations. This Government has always used agents for purposes of surveillance or to actively undermine groups (or countries) it considers a threat. We’ve seen this in the past with Cointel-Pro, but we’ve also seen it today with the surveillance of those who peacefully protest.

To me, the strongest aspect of the film is its ability to humanize members of the Black Panther Party and stay away from hyper militant caricatures. After all, members of the Black Panther Party were human beings like everyone else. They had family and friends. They had their strengths and weaknesses. I think we sometimes get caught up in the sound and the fury of the time: black fists in air, black berets and fatigues, shouting “power to the people,” etc. We forget that most of the actions of the Black Panthers and other socially conscious groups were designed to address very real needs. The Free Breakfast for School Children program, for example, was designed to serve black and poor people. While it did provide an alternative and more humane model for dealing with people, its primary purpose was to feed hungry school children. Recall that the Panthers believed that "Children cannot reach their full academic potential if they have empty stomachs." They were so effective in feeding hungry people that the federal government felt compelled to adopt similar programs, not with the goal of alleviating social misery, but to minimize the potential influence of the Black Panthers in the lives of black and poor people. Similarly, many of the neighborhood watch and cop watch programs were born in response to specific abuses. There was (and is) a very real need to watch the police (and other government agencies) when we continue to see case after case of black men being brutalized and murdered with little or no legal recourse available. These programs weren’t born out of some desire to simply assert Leftist ideals, but to promote survival. I think that aspect is purposely ignored by those who see the Panthers and other revolutionary groups as only a threat to the prevailing social order.

Anthony Mackie projects a quiet strength through his character. He deftly captures the struggle—often without saying a word—of someone trying to balance the weight of his own personal decisions against his obligations to friends and family. Besides the palpable tension between Marcus and Patricia, we also see this internal struggle made external in the interchange between Marcus and Patricia’s cousin, Jimmy. Jimmy is clearly disappointed by what he sees as a stalled revolution. He is enthralled by comics that show black people violently striking back against the “pigs” (police). Marcus sees an understandably angry kid bent on destruction and tries to dissuade him from his current path. Snatching the comic from him, he says, “The Feds printed these comics for people just like you.” One can infer from this conversation that these comics were printed with the goal of inciting young people into confrontations that would ultimately end badly for them. Jimmy’s fate does lend credence to this interpretation. This suggests to me that the correct course of action is to remain cool and collected on the surface, but to continue to engage in clandestine operations. It seems to me that many of us have adopted the first part of the message. The problem is that we’ve abandoned the rest of the message. And in doing so, the night not only catches us, but will never let us go.