I admit, right up front, that it is a little odd that a film, released in 2010 and set in 1976, a film expertly and exquisitely written and directed by Tanya Hamilton, a Black woman, sent my mind straight to a phrase made famous by Thomas Wolfe, a white man who died in 1938.
Then again, as odd as it seems on its face, maybe that oddity underscores the nuance and complexity of race, gender, and the American way that Hamilton braids through her all-too-American drama.
Marcus Washington, played with equal parts intensity and charm by Anthony Mackie, returns home after the death of his preacher father, to the most American of cities: Philadelphia.
It does not take long for Marcus (or us) to gather that this homecoming will not be a warm one as his moment over his father’s casket is disrupted by Bostic Washington (Tariq Trotter), whose barely concealed rage makes his simple statement to the woman at his side, “This is Marcus, my brother,” feel more like a curse than a welcome.
If Bostic looks familiar, but you’re having trouble placing him, let me help you out… though the Philadelphia backdrop should provide a clue. He is also known as Black Thought, Philly legend, hip-hop legend, the unmistakable (lead) voice of The Roots, and most recently a five-day-a-week fixture on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.
Marcus’s return also raises the eyebrows and the ire of different kind of brothers, the local Black Panthers, a message delivered with gleeful fury by “DoRight” (Jamie Hector) who Marcus persists in calling “Dwayne.” DoRight makes it clear that he does not take any more kindly to being called by his government name than he does to Marcus showing his unwelcome face in Philly after four years… and that he has the firepower to make his points even clearer.
Their confrontation, powerfully performed by Hector and Mackie, is one of countless examples of Hamilton’s greatest gift for dialogue: what she leaves unsaid. These characters communicate much, based on a history they share and which we are expected to extract from the narrative. Rather than leaving the audience feeling lost, though, Hamilton demands our attention, trusting us to intuit and solve where lesser filmmakers might nervously inundate and spoon feed us with exposition and backstory. I found myself leaning forward, dying to know, “What happened?”
Snitch. Equally bold and cryptic, the succinct answer only sparks more questions. Is Marcus a snitch? What happened to this Neil who keeps getting mentioned? And if Marcus is a snitch, why is it that David Gordon (Wendell Pierce), an area police detective, doesn’t seem much happier to see him than DoRight is?
So many questions… But nowhere do the questions emerge with answers artfully submerged more than in the moments that reunite Marcus with Patricia Wilson (Kerry Washington) or as he stubbornly calls her “Patti.” She passes by to see her old friend after her daughter (also Neil’s daughter!), Iris, a masterful balance of childhood innocence and “from the mouths of babes” wisdom, tells her that she has seen the man in the old photo of her parents.
Immediately, the chemistry is there between Marcus and Patti. What is most intriguing about their chemistry, though, is that it is so much more than a physical attraction, which… I mean… look at them… we all would get. They share a history that is purely theirs. They share secrets that are purely theirs. What is, perhaps, most lovable about this love story, set against the backdrop of a revolution that seems to have missed its moment, is that Patti and Marcus clearly love each other before the first frame and will love each other long after the credits roll. We’re just fortunate enough to witness the beauty of how they express their love, romantically and otherwise.
We get the requisite sense of opposites attracting. He ran away from their Philly home. She stubbornly stays. She, driven by commitment to the struggle, feeds and houses anyone and everyone who shows up to her door. He, driven by a similar commitment, sold guns and ended up with three hots and a cot. And, yet, we see that they each live with the burden of regret, the disillusionment of grown Black folks, realizing there is no right path as you seek Black liberation… just paths that are doomed in unique and varied ways. But through it all, whether in the sight of children eating fruit around Patti’s table… or in a gentle word of appreciation and understanding between old friends… or even in moments of reckoning between sworn enemies…
… there is beauty.
… there is hope.
… there is love.
So, even if Wolfe was right, even if we can’t go home again… we can spend 90 beautiful minutes watching Marcus test that theory and learn along with him the truth of another old saying:
Home is where the heart is.
And if that’s the case… Night Catches Us truly hit me where I live.