Interview: Director Tanya Hamilton on How ‘Night Catches Us’

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CHICAGO – In the 1970s, there was a period in history when the civil rights movement began to splinter and disintegrate. Government infiltration, internal divisions and lack of direction especially hurt organizations like the Black Panthers movement, a focus of Writer/Director Tanya Hamilton’s new film, “Night Catches Us.”

In 1976, after years of absence, Marcus (Anthony Mackie of “The Hurt Locker”) returns to his Philadelphia neighborhood, where he was a member of the Black Panther movement. His reappearance arouses new suspicions regarding his sudden vanishing, his colleagues suspect he sold out a fellow Panther. The only acceptance he seems to find is from his old friend Patricia (Kerry Washington). Together, they must somehow come to terms with a past from which they can’t seem to escape.

Tanya Hamilton makes her feature film debut with Night Catches Us, several years after after winning Best Short Film at the 1996 Berlin International Film Festival for “The Killers.” The screenplay for her recent film received recognition from the Pew Fellowship in Arts and the Gordon Parks Screenwriting Award, among others, before being produced and shot on location in Philadelphia.

Anthony Mackie as Marcus and Kerry Washington as Patricia in ‘Night Catches Us’
Anthony Mackie as Marcus and Kerry Washington as Patricia in ‘Night Catches Us’
Photo credit: Magnolia Pictures interviewed Tanya Hamilton in August, as she was showcasing Night Catches Us at the Black Harvest Film Festival in Chicago. The film opens in the Windy City as part of its limited release at the I.C.E. Chatham 14 Theater on December 10th, 2010. What was the inspiration for this story, was it autobiographical or historically based?

Tanya Hamilton: Sort of neither. Not autobiographical, not my story at all. Historical in the sense that I like taking threads from reality and weaving them into the fictional narrative. That’s essentially what I did. On the inspiration end, in many ways I’ve always been interested in that piece of history, in as much as its a metaphor for a lot of movements. I was interested in how young people went to war, even though it was metaphoric war fought on the streets, and then to come home and try to figure out their lives afterward. What does the title, Night Catches Us, mean to you in the context of the story?

Hamilton: I thought it was a slightly noirish title. In my mind at least it means the characters will never escape their past, they are kind of trapped, and I think they’re not going to get past it. The title Night Catches Us means they can’t run fast enough. What do you think law enforcement never understands about race relations in the context of your story?

Hamilton: It was ironic, because I didn’t show the film to any actual Black Panthers as I was writing it or making it, because of fear. I didn’t want to tell even the most miniscule pieces of someone’s history for fear of offending them or not be authentic enough. Since then, I shown it to [former Panthers] Kathleen Cleaver and Bobby Seale, and I think the main thing to be revealed is that they thought the Philly cops back then were Gestapo-like, they ran amuck because the authority above them let it happen.

I felt that Kathleen Cleaver connected to the main female character in the film and I was happy there were parts that felt authentic to her. But she did come away feeling the cops were not real. When I look back on the production, there are two things that dogged me, and one of them was the cops. I didn’t want to turn up the scary elements of them either because this was a film about the middle.

Basically when you are living under siege in every single way – emotionally, economically, physically – something as small as a moment of humiliation from the law means a lot. My thought regarding the cops was about the process of when the Panthers were eradicated from the neighborhood, the complex but great things they did in relationship to the community that ended, allowing other threads to slip through the cracks, because there was nobody there to catch them. What kind of historical commitment did your actors make when researching their characters and what kind of revelations did they have about history and past racial relations?

Hamilton: Kerry Washington comes from a political background, and its very important to her, which is why she was attracted to the role. I know that Mackie didn’t have that strong of political leanings, but his dedication and love of Obama was very real. Jamie Hector is very socially minded, he runs an organization in Brooklyn where he teaches kids acting and is involved in the community. Wendell Pierce went back to New Orleans to help rebuild the neighborhood where he is from, so I think everyone came to it having a little piece of themselves within the social fabric. You had to recreate a certain decade and period, obviously on a slightly lower budget. What was most difficult about keeping the current time out of your re-creation of 1976?

Hamilton: A slightly lower budget is a kind way of putting it. [laughs] We had no money at all. But we had an art department that was extremely dedicated, designer Beth Mickle and her team. She was used to working on bigger films, and we were the tiny movie that they loved, in a heartfelt and real way. So she and her team worked super hard every day. It sounds like a cliché but its true, I don’t think the film would look anywhere near what it looks like without them.

We had to deal with things like street signs and cell towers, but Philadelphia is a little capsule in time in certain areas, and it was a combination of smart planning and being there.

Tanya Hamilton on the Set of ‘Night Catches Us’
Tanya Hamilton on the Set of ‘Night Catches Us’
Photo credit: Magnolia Pictures Many resources of the federal government and local urban police forces were used to infiltrate and plot against the Black Panther Movement. Was this a misuse of power in your estimation or do you think there were elements in the party that endangered the country?

Hamilton: It’s compelling in a way. To answer your question, yes, it’s an absolute misuse of power, because in the end you look back on this collection of people who weren’t necessarily as organized in the scary way as the authorities thought. It was if they looked for a wolf at the door, and then opened it to find a cat.

It’s the same as learning in school that the Soviets were evil people, and then you grow up and read that a lot of that came from poverty in the land, with people struggling. That’s the way propaganda works, you make the ‘enemy’ bigger than they are. I don’t want to dismiss the human element of fear, and in the film I tried to look for that center, and why people do what they do, and to use individuals as a metaphor for the way government behaved, towards each other and their citizens. In my perspective it was massively offensive, and perhaps unnecessary. Which historical figure from the era you depict, approximately 1967-76, do you admire most and why?

Hamilton: I have an eclectic mix of people I am really fascinated by, and for very different reasons. I think that Bayard Rustin [early civil rights organizer] is pretty extraordinary, given what he did and what little credit he got. I’m a rank-and-file lover, I love the workers and the story behind the things we’re all suppose to know. There was a poll that asked if the Panthers were negative or positive. 86% of Americans said negative and of the 14% who said positive, 75% of those were African American. What justifies these numbers in your research on the film and are they fair?

Hamilton: They are of course massively unfair. We need more education about the history of the movement. The fact that the Panthers started feeding kids before they went to school has become a nationwide program. There was something to that, and they were complicated as we all are as people. But there is something so interesting because they are indicative of all movements, it’s the human element that helps it to implode.

Youth and politics have a great romanticism to it, but people don’t recognize the things they really wanted to do. They see their failings, and the propaganda helps point that out. But all the things the Panthers accomplished, the clinics, rights orientation and the other great ideals on a local level were actually libertarian in a way. This is a story about history repeating itself, especially in the context of the law in race relations. In your opinion, how has these relations improved since the time of your film, and how have they remained the same?

Hamilton: It is a double edged answer. I remember coming here from Jamaica as a child, and being in public school here, and I remember if you called someone an ‘African’ in those days, it was fighting words. And I’m speaking from a perspective of color, so yes, that has changed greatly since I was a child of the 1970s to now. There is a sense of pride that is overwhelming, an internal pride that comes from a sense of one’s history. With education and the internet there is access to who you are. That has fostered a sense of pride, and has changed persons of color.

On the race relations end, it is still complex. There was a politeness veneer with relations in the 1980s and ‘90s that I see being stripped away, with the internet and what you can say being out there immediately. A truth is emerging, a rawness. It’s new, and I don’t know where it’s going to go and how it’s going to last. My sense is that not much changes, it’s either you push the feelings deeper or they’re at the surface.

There are some people in the middle of all that, which is where I am as a filmmaker and most interested. The struggle. Because I think everybody has their specific leanings, but I think it’s the struggle that matters the most, trying to figure out why you think this way or what you think. The sweeping idea that race issues are gone is ridiculous, it’s more a very human thing – as in I’m struggling with why I feel this way, and I’m trying to work it out.

”Night Catches Us” continues its limited release in Chicago on December 10th at the I.C.E. Chatham 14. Featuring Kerry Washington, Anthony Mackie, Jamie Hector and Wendell Pierce. Written and directed by Tanya Hamilton. Rated “PG-13” senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Senior Staff Writer

© 2010 Patrick McDonald,

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