Oldie But Goodie: Adventures in Netflix: A Somber Love Letter to the Black Panther Movement

This Adventure was originally written in February 2014.

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(Source: IMP Awards)

In honor of Black History Month, my Adventures in Netflix will all be about films made by black filmmakers. Black Filmmakers are telling wonderful stories but are unfortunately bypassed due to a variety of factors such as lack of funding/ distribution support and the entire structure of the film industry itself. The first film that I will be talking about is Night Catches Us, written and directed by Tanya Hamilton. It tells the story of Marcus (Anthony Mackie) and his return home to Philadelphia after being in jail and the death of his father. He’s got no job and no friends because he is the man who snitched on the local Black Panther Leader. He isn’t well liked and everyone, from his former comrades to the local police, constantly remind him of this fact. Over time he starts to spend time with his friend Patricia (Kerry Washington) and her young daughter Iris (Jamara Griffin). This drama gives us snippets of the rich history of the Black Panther Party as well as an interesting picture of its aftermath.

I must confess that I am aware of most of the Black Panther’s history. There was a time when I was 16 I was, fascinated with Black History. I devoured all of the books and document I could find and one of those was about the Black Panthers. I even did an in-depth research paper on the organization as well as the FBI’s COINTELPRO actions, so I had prior knowledge going in, and could probably teach you so many things that some of you don’t even know about the US and its treatment of Black Americans. That being said, you don’t have to know a lot about this time period to understand what is going on in this film. But you may want to read up on it afterwards to get some context.

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(Source: Official Night Catches Us Website)

Night Catches Us does something that most historical dramas falter in doing, it shows the grey. While most dramas want to make a certain person or group look like saints throughout the film, Night Catches Us uses the gift of hindsight to its advantage. With Marcus and Patricia both being former Panthers, you see the good of the organization: with their free food programs and their legal knowledge, and the bad: the violence. The audience is never made to actively dislike the police or the Panthers. It doesn’t judge people’s actions, either. It just presents the events and lets the audience come up with their own opinion. All of these characters were portrayed sympathetically in this aftermath of violence. The historical violence always hummed under the surface, coloring every interaction that Marcus, Patricia, and even Iris. Towards the end of the film, we find out the reason that Marcus went to jail and its heartbreaking and shows how when activists had to constantly decide between the cause and their personal health, things may not always turn out as we think. This film also does a wonderful job of not erasing a Patricia’s role in this history. Erasure of women is a common practice that is unfortunately done to many moments of history, most notably the Civil Rights Movement in Black History.

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(Source: Official Night Catches Us Website)

Another interesting comment the film makes is the effect of childhood nostalgia. There is a side plot involving Patricia’s cousin Jimmy. Jimmy (Amari Cheatom) is a young man who grew up with the Panthers being these larger than life figures who protected the neighborhood. The result is Jimmy going as far to wearing the traditional BPP garb and shooting a police officer. You can only guess what the end of his story was. What I found interesting was that the film was presenting a commentary on believing the hype. Jimmy never questioned what he read in the propaganda materials. It brought up feelings that there comes a point where you have to question what you are told and make your own decisions. Marcus also has this epiphany in his storyline that if every person keeps playing the same roles in the struggle, nothing will ever change. This lesson ultimately leads to a quiet ending where a choice is made that breaks the cycle but leaves a bitter taste.

While this is a pretty heavy subject, the film is very enjoyable to watch. Kerry Washington has a beautiful performance and it is always nice to see her outside of Scandal. Anthony Mackie is always a delight to watch on film and I am so glad that his star is rising with his role as the Falcon in Captain America: The Winter Solder. Finally, the film is scored by The Roots. That decision alone makes it worth watching.

UP NEXT: Big Words written and directed by Neil Drumming

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