I recently watched the independent film Night Catches Us–and yes, I intentionally use the word ‘film.’ I’m not a snob about watching movies. I’ll watch about anything (I made it through most of Sex and the City 2), but I am a believer that analysis and discussion is what makes any culture–pop, commercial, or high–interesting. And in this capacity, clear distinctions can be made between independent films versus Hollywood movies versus foreign films. One is not inherently better or more worthy than the others, and they can all be abused. But there are differences.
Night Catches Us is a film, and it blew my mind in all the right ways. Anthony Mackie is on frickin fire. Smoldering intelligent strong righteous sexy fire. And you’d think after all the attention for The Hurt Locker, he might have pulled a bigger spotlight onto Night Catches Us.
But this film is challenging as well as entertaining. While I consider that the perfect combination, most American moviegoers are not so interested in the challenge part. Especially any challenge about America’s racial history and its insistent legacy. (Most aren’t interested–I’m not being nitpicky or oversensitive. That’s the way it is.)
So while Night Catches Us entertains, it doesn’t pander. It’s about serious themes. The influence and sting of family. The way our past can be both comfort and baggage. The ability for anyone, given the opportunity, to abuse power.
And most forcefully, it is about the persistence of police violence against black men, the relentless antagonism it stokes, the family rifts it exacerbates, and how black women find ways to manage with it all.
It is so smart. It is deep and intriguing. It is entertaining and contains a mystery that must be uncovered–who snitched?
But Night Catches Us didn’t get the mainstream attention it deserved.
Maybe Winter’s Bone took whatever mainstream attention rough little indie films could chisel away from the sparkling award circuit. (Because both are good films that tell stories of family and our inability to totally ditch it, or its past.)
Maybe Winter’s Bone gathered more attention because it’s about poor white people and their infighting–rather than about politically active black people, their infighting and their fight. Winter’s Bone doesn’t critique the system as much as explore an unseen part of it. Night Catches Us critiques the system while revealing complex layers.
That’s what makes it a film. It can be discussed many times. Weeks later.
For example, I love the director’s use of a Black Panther comic. It isn’t just a comic–it’s a repeating metaphor with the viewer roped in the same way as Iris and Jimmy (two young characters, each impressionable in different ways). Then the comic comes alive on screen, as it does in their imagination. Planting its seeds. And we, the viewer, believe that the Black Panthers made those drawings of black men with guns going after pigs in cop uniforms. But the Panthers didn’t. The comics were planted by the Feds. By COINTELPRO. But we are tricked, like most people were. Then the viewer gets to walk away. However, the black men and women who romanticize that imagery–like Jimmy does–get jailed, hurt, or killed.
Black men and guns is an American issue. It goes back to the 1600s. It goes back to slave laws. It goes to Nat Turner and Marcus Garvey and Rob Williams. It goes to the Black Panthers and the Nation of Islam and MOVE, and also to NWA and gangsta rap and Boyz N the Hood. It goes to the rise of the black cop and Amadou Diallo and thug imagery and The Wire and Hurricane Katrina.
But the issue of black men and guns has been separated from textbooks and from the NRA. Instead we’ve been fed simplistic images, like the COINTELPRO comics and COPS television show. We don’t hear complicated conversations about power, rights, access, confidence vs. pride, the limitations of revolution, and the intransigence of institutional violence. Night Catches Us feeds the viewer these challenges with a big spoonful of suspenseful, entertaining sugar. Tanya Hamilton (writer/director) did this drama right. Raw, passionate, intelligent.
And if you didn’t get everything in this blog, I hope it makes you curious enough to watch the film and re-read my random thoughts.