by Daniel Garrett
Night Catches Us
Directed by Tanya Hamilton
Magnolia Pictures, 2010
IF Barack Obama, a pudgy smart biracial boy, a curious and slim brown young man, a college graduate, a community organizer, a lawyer, a senator, had been born to two black parents, rather than fathered by one, would he have become an American president? Or would his two black parents have told him, as many black children have been told, “You cannot become president. Be practical. Think of a regular job. There are factories and fields where you can work, and the post office is hiring. Do something black people have done”?
Once, the fact of Africa’s long history, before the sighting of a European, was something that was not forgotten. Once, we knew Negroes had been part of the crews exploring the new world with the naval adventurers Christopher Columbus, Vasco Nunez de Balboa and Francisco Vasquez de Coronado. Once, pride and pain and promise were part of a conscientious inheritance. Once, Crispus Attucks was famous. Once, Benjamin Banneker was celebrated. Once, names such as Paul Cuffe, Gabriel Prosser, John Russworm, Nat Turner, Daniel Alexander Payne, David Walker, and Martin Delany formed a pantheon of heroes, a roll call of valor that included Henry Highland Garnett, Frederick Douglass, Armand Lanusse, Phillis Wheatley, Harriet Tubman, Granville Woods, and George Washington Carver. The admirable and necessary efforts of W.E.B. DuBois, Monroe Trotter, Paul Dunbar, Henry Tanner, Alain Locke, Duke Ellington, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, and Zora Neale Hurston and others would augment that roster. Freedom was the mission. Education was key. Union, and cultural and political critique, and voting were strategies. Accomplishment was the verification of belief, the justification of effort, and the fulfillment of self and community.
It takes character and discipline and knowledge and money and passion and reason and space and time to achieve anything of significance. Not everyone knows that. Not everyone is told. Sometimes we want instant change, and are willing to settle for its appearance rather than work for a new authority, a new purpose, and a new structure that would make it real. There has been a betrayal of legacy in African-American culture and politics that is rarely discussed, but aspects of it can be seen in writer and director Tanya Hamilton’s film Night Catches Us, starring Anthony Mackie and Kerry Washington: it is a film about what happened after the armed gangs calling themselves political activists were no longer performing for their naive peers and the national press. The real culprits of the communal history are never described as they are the ones who were speaking the loudest, using words like pride and power that attracted and confused people. The romance of rhetoric was allowed to supplant realism. What was lost? Perspective. Once, people did not have to be told that ambition was more significant than anger, or that there was a difference between accomplishment and attitude, and that a pose is not the same thing as a personality or a principle. That was when the works of the Harlem Renaissance were produced. That was when people began to move on behalf of civil rights, led by men such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Bayard Rustin, organizing from town to town, getting people registered to vote and to demonstrate against public accommodations that were not equal or fair.
If you love cinema, and have a particular interest in the presence of African-Americans on film, when a new film emerges of some ambition and skill, you hear about it, look forward to it, and try to see it. It is hard for anyone else to know the exact pleasure or disappointment that can occur upon viewing such a new work. History and the future both seem to haunt the screening; and as the transcendent can be found in art–and the African presence, in cinema and other art, in America and elsewhere, is usually presented and erased, its import ethereal–the occasion becomes even more significant. Thus, I saw, with relish and lasting memory films of beauty, knowledge, and pleasure, a film canon in fact if not reputation: motion pictures such as Antwone Fisher, Bad Company, Beloved, Blue Collar, Boomerang, Chameleon Street, Claudine, Daughters of the Dust, Devil in a Blue Dress, Dirty Laundry, Edge of the City, Eve’s Bayou, The Five Heartbeats, Ganja and Hess, Get on the Bus, Glory, Grand Canyon, The Great Debaters, The Guardian, The Hurricane, I Will Follow, Jumping the Broom, Lady Sings the Blues, Lilies of the Field, Losing Ground, Matewan, Othello, The Pursuit of Happyness, A Rage in Harlem, A Raisin in the Sun, The Red Violin, Sankofa, Sidewalk Stories, A Soldier’s Story and Things We Lost in the Fire. I had hoped to like Night Catches Us, but when I saw it, I thought its craft was respectable, and story somewhat interesting, but meaning and message weak: it focuses on a man who returns to his old Philadelphia neighborhood in mid-1970s America for his father’s funeral, and finds his bitter, possibly irrational Muslim brother; and the wife of his deceased best friend, a radical activist the returning man is thought to have betrayed if not killed; and the remnants of a radical group that seem to do little more than hang out at a bar and rove the streets threatening people.
How many of the people in the film would know Crispus Attucks was the first American killed during the American Revolution, and that Benjamin Banneker was one of the architects of the nation’s capitol, or that Paul Cuffe was a shipyard owner who worked on behalf of black voting rights? Would they know or remember that Gabriel Prosser was a Virginia slave rebel, John Russworm was a newspaper publisher, Daniel Payne a bishop, and working against slavery in writing, in the most eloquent language, were David Walker, Martin Delany, and Henry Garland? Or that Armand Lanusse edited an anthology of Louisiana black French (Creole) poetry? Or that Granville Woods created communication for the rail systems, and Monroe Trotter was an important publisher? If they had forgotten or never known the esteemed persons of the past, would they recognize those walking the earth the same time they did? Would they have any appreciation for literary writer Ralph Ellison and opera singer Leontyne Price and dancer and choreographer Alvin Ailey? Could they anticipate business moguls such as Oprah Winfrey or Richard Parsons? Could they imagine a Barack Obama, an Eric Holder, and a Susan Rice, a president and an attorney general and an international ambassador of color?
In Night Catches Us, a film that seems to have been photographed in an area with both houses and woods, for scenes in genuine neighborhoods and homes, creating a sense of a city with nature as a refuge, a film with a look that welcomes the viewer, there is only one character who seems to have a respectable social purpose, the widow of a once heroic activist, Patricia Wilson (Kerry Washington, suave and a little tense), as a lawyer, and a mother of an intuitive and inquiringly precocious daughter (Jamara Griffin), and the provider of meals for neighborhood kids. No one else embodies the complexity of mind articulated by Black Panther Bobby Seale in the accompanying special features of the film disk package: Seale saw the need for a wide range of educational, practical, and political programs, addressing the desperately vital concerns of a deprived people. Some of that work had been done, beginning in the eighteenth-century, by black churches and benevolent and fraternal groups, providing everything from banking and insurance services to literary clubs. The great promise of the Black Panthers was that blacks could establish their own cultural values, identify and address their own problems, and police their own neighborhoods, a worthy but betrayed promise: and betrayed by the flawed character and inconsistent discipline of activists and also by government sabotage–widely thought to include surveillance, disinformation, encouragement of dissension, and the allowance of drugs into the neighborhoods. The most positive effect of the group was the exorcising of doubt, fear, and false humility. What has the film done with that history? The San Francisco Chronicle‘s Mick LaSalle noted, “Though writer-director Tanya Hamilton has a feel for the period, she doesn’t have a handle on anything approximating a compelling narrative,” concluding that Hamilton confused situation for story (December 10, 2010). I suppose that “situation rather than story” would be more interesting if the situation were seen as more of an existential or philosophical matter: what are the responsibilities for those with awareness and skills after their primary associations and strategies have found their limits?
How do you live with a dream? How do you live with the death of a dream? It is a wonderful thing to begin to ask questions about the fundamental nature of reality: exciting, full of potential, dangerous. It can be a tormenting thing. Who are we, and what kind of society do we live in? Is it honest, intelligent, and fair? Is it creative, spiritual? Is it compassionate? How do the social values that are taught actually match the surrounding reality? If not, why not? What can be done to make society better? Are authorities to be trusted? Do we have allies, colleagues, and friends? Can our goals be achieved quickly, or with time; and in peace or with violence? After one has an idea and a practice, and then fails to fulfill oneï¿½s purpose, there are more questions: Is it possible to correct what we have thought and done? Does our tenderness blanket rage, and does our rage blanket tenderness? Where, and from whom, is forgiveness to be sought? How can we renew our spirits? How can we accrue new resources? What are we to do now?
In writer and director Tanya Hamilton’s Night Catches Us is a world that has known conflict and change, but not enough change, a world in which a prodigal son, Marcus Washington (Anthony Mackie, natural, intense), goes home and sees his father laid out in his casket: to return home to commemorate death is to know that you have returned too late. Marcus replaces the scriptural page his brother had chosen to feature with another, something his black-gowned Muslim brother Bostic objects to, as Bostic will object to the returned exile’s attempts to paint a half-restored room. Marcus’s righteous and rigid brother, Bostic (Tariq Trotter), tells the prodigal son to convert the improved room to its previous half-finished condition, and Bostic himself splashes paint against a wall to deface Marcus’s work. Yet, Bostic wants to sell the house. Obviously Bostic dislikes his brother Marcus, a confident and intelligent but far from arrogant man, for leaving and for returning, as the Muslim man has strict rules of behavior (his wife is covered from head to toe: modest dress as the annihilation of self-expression and public attraction). The insanity speaks for itself.
The insanity continues when a former associate of the prodigal son, an armed man, comes by the house to threaten Marcus as he is performing chores. It is one of those pointless scenes–except that this kind of thing occurs in real life, when someone’s malice is his only real purpose and he needs to go out of his way to express it. Hate can get people off their asses faster than plans for a new communal project. The man–misnamed DoRight (Jamie Hector)–wants vengeance for the beloved dead activist, believed to have been sacrificed to the authorities. The more pathetic version of the same misguided feeling is that of a trash-collecting cousin of Marcus’s friend Patricia, Jimmy, a young man who wants to embody the wild toughness of the fabled Black Panthers, men and women of rhetoric and style. What vengeance will achieve, other than masculine pleasure or social fear, is not apparent. (Marcus, an old friend, tells Patricia the obvious, that her cousin is crazy and a danger to her young daughter.) There are suitable responses to both civil protest and to inciting violent behavior, but that is not seen here; rather, a local policeman, Detective Gordon (Wendell Pierce), uses personal threats and a plot to plant false evidence to corral a group that might be dangerous still. The group is dangerous: they say they are, and about certain things-such as the proposed acts of those who accept brutality and irrationality as starting points–one must believe the speakers.
Yet, the intelligent viewer’s true interest lies in another place: Marcus, a drifter, a wanderer, is someone looking for the future; and Patricia, a stable woman, is someone responsible to the past and trying to maintain the present. Both are decent, sane. There are the little arguments and flirtations of friendly people in their conversations. That they are friends is more important than sex or romance, as their friendship requires understanding, the penetration of mystique. Marcus gives Patricia’s daughter old comics, recognizing and rewarding his own imagination in her. Patricia invites him to a neighborhood barbecue. The normality is charming. Does a filmmaker have to give us chaos for us to appreciate peace? It is Patricia’s cousin Jimmy (Amari Cheatom) who gets the violence he was dreaming of, bringing trouble to Patricia’s house. It is telling that a derelict character sets so much of the plot in motion. The heroes–Marcus and Patricia–are not the masters of the situation: the fool is master, though not for long. Why focus on this aspect of plot? Many interpreters of art cannot create their own art and consequently express their active but circumscribed imagination in their illogical conceptions of the work of artists. Plot often illustrates the ideas of a piece–the conscious, proposed ideas, or the genuine but buried ones–and confirming the details of plot clarifies vision and establishes some of the evidence.
Night Catches Us is a rather mild dream of a lasting horror, in which the promise of progress became cynical and violent, leaving confused, dispersed energies and people. The things that one becomes grateful for–the basics (housing, food, and ordinary work)–are much less than all one should desire. It is no surprise that the people have the wrong story, the wrong interpretation: in life, in the film. One lesson? Violence is anger turned into force, and force become gesture, and violence does not heal; it hurts. It turns out in Night Catches Us that the person who betrayed the admired dead activist that gave up organized politics and turned to retaliatory violence, bringing official force against his group and his family, was not the best friend, the exiled man, the returned prodigal son, but, rather, a loving and worried parent who betrayed the murderous man on behalf of her child–and the best friend, to protect that parent and child, let people think he was the betrayer. That betrayal “the reporting”of a killer may be the most intelligent choice, both provocative and subtle, in the film, as women and men–to protect the safety and sanity of the next generation–sometimes, but not always, do choose to leave dumb rhetoric and violent action behind, as they learn: The poetry and politics of hate may bring pleasure but that does not bring progress; and those who misname misanthropy as cultural pride, or the love of black people, lead not to justice or redemption but only to death and destruction.
The human being is a complex being often seen in simple ways, but art allows us to see from different angles, suggesting depth and range, contradictions and harmonies. The lives of many people fall into aimless drift, as in Tanya Hamilton’s Night Catches Us, and sometimes that drift is obvious, and sometimes only the individual knows it. Drift can be artistic, intellectual, spiritual, social, or political. Minority populations are likely to be aware of the limits of their existence, especially if there has been a history of prejudice and punishment. If you are told that your existence does not have meaning, you accept or resist that–and if you resist, you look for possible meanings and try to create meaning. The play of power in your life–the political dimension–offers one kind of meaning, and sometimes that seems the most important–but the personal and the communal, the spiritual and the familial and the shared aesthetic, also have significance. Of course, African-Americans, like everyone else, are more than political beings, though what else–besides laborers, lovers, and entertainers–is not frequently explored. Tensions exist between one’s freedom and one’s frustration. There can be pain and anger. There can be rebellion–intelligent and dumb, moral and immoral. Is transformation possible? “Most people cling to their guilts and terrors and crimes, compounding them hour by hour and day by day, and are more likely to be changed from without than from within,” wrote James Baldwin, a creator of literature and essays (Another Country, No Name in the Street), and an observation Baldwin wrote in 1978 within an approving comment about Bobby Seale’s memoir A Lonely Rage (The Cross of Redemption, Pantheon Books, NY, 2010; page 235). Baldwin was a writer whose eloquence, honesty, and popularity endowed him with authority.
Philosophy–belief, logic, reason, practice, and what is accepted as knowledge and wisdom–is important for what it reveals of human nature and its possibilities. Yet one man’s philosophy is not as easily accepted as another man’s philosophy. What is the most common root of cultural authority? Perspective or position? What does a black man have to do to inspire the confidence of other blacks? What does the general American populace have to see in a black person to understand that they are looking at a complete human being? What does an African-American artist or thinker have to be, think, or do, to achieve a cultural or political authority that extends beyond the subject of African-American lives? What impact can you have if you have little or no cultural authority? The Black Panthers, through addressing real problems, speaking harsh truths, and presenting themselves with an impressive image that included guns, gained attention and respect, but not from everyone. They were criticized from positions of idealism and pragmatism–and sometimes personal knowledge. The filmmaker Charles Burnett was born in Mississippi but grew up in Los Angeles, and his works are Killer of Sheep, To Sleep with Anger, The Glass Shield, and Nightjohn, and he was not impressed by the organization: “I’ve never been part of any group. There were a lot of guys that joined the Panthers because it offered a direction for young people and tried to give them a focus. You were like part of an army. You had a uniform–a black leather coat and tam. I couldn’t take a lot of it seriously because I knew some of the guys who joined the Panthers, like this guy Jerry. We were in school together. He was a nice guy, in many ways, but he didn’t have any direction,” Burnett told Monona Wali of The Independent in 1988 (Charles Burnett Interviews, University Press of Mississippi, 2011; page 17-18). Burnett goes on to describe how Jerry could not sit still in class for two minutes, how Jerry recruited others to the political group, and how he sought confrontation with the police–and ended up dying in a shootout with the police.
What might have been? What might have occurred if more people had believed in democracy rather than the rule of color or money or might? What if more people had believed that change is natural? “It is a movie about loss, sadness and regret, and the feeling that history has moved on,” wrote Roger Ebert of Night Catches Us in the Chicago Sun-Times (December 8, 2010). Certainly, Tanya Hamilton is to be commended for attempting to suggest what humanity might have existed beyond controversial images and destructive facts. Might she have been more successful had she attempted a story of the same period that was less connected obviously to history’s political convulsions? There are different ways of being human, different ways of seeking fulfillment, different ways of bringing change. Yet, what point does it serve to tell an artist she should have chosen a different subject? Artists pursue what interests them. We must cultivate patience for difficult subjects and experimental forms–if we are to understand anything new. When the writer Wesley Morris, commenting about a political documentary he found illuminating and vital, a work that demonstrated liberal European sympathy for American civil rights issues and the movement for black power and the limits of that sympathy, Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 written and directed by G’ran Olsson, he, The Boston Globe‘s film critic Wesley Morris, referenced the Hamilton film: “Last year, Tanya Hamilton released a tiny drama about a sliver of the movement, with Anthony Mackie and Kerry Washington, called Night Catches Us. It quickly disappeared. It’s an imperfect but ambitious film willing to confront an enormous, complex period in this country” (The Boston Globe, September 30, 2011).
The languor–long scenes, slow pace, quiet–of the film Night Catches Us is at once attractive and frustrating: it can set the mood for significant thought, but, unfortunately, its onscreen conversations lack intellectual depth or fresh political analysis. One of the excised scenes was particularly pointed, noting more of the differences between the political organization’s thinking and practices and how those were misrepresented to the public. It is interesting and sad that intriguing characters, and good actors, and a promising situation are not made more of, yielding different assessments of success. Of course, interpretations both create and destroy meaning: and the film does provide substance for consideration. “Relationships bloom and dissolve, brawls break out, people are murdered, yet none of it feels particularly consequential. The restraint is especially overwhelming with Washington, who gives a somewhat wooden performance even when she recounts what are ostensibly the most difficult moments of her life to her endlessly curious 9-year-old daughter, played with relieving vitality by Jamara Griffin,” wrote Stephanie Merry of The Washington Post (December 17, 2010).
Yet, the Chicago Tribune‘s Michael Phillips described the film as “the gentlest American film ever made about home-grown revolutionaries,” and, appreciating the sensitivity of the work’s photography and its performances, Phillips thought it, also, a good film (December 9, 2010). Does interpretation establish a film’s authority or that of a critic and scholar–or both? Michael Phillips declared that “Mackie’s one of the shrewdest actors in movies today, and while his character is dangerously recessive in dramatic terms, Mackie and Washington make the most of their courtship dance.” In terms of acting, I was pleased by how Anthony Mackie shifted moods, how believably. He and Washington are not the most charismatic of screen couples but they do communicate with affection, clarity, and conviction; and that made them good together. This is certainly one of the most complex roles I have seen Kerry Washington play, and she is attractive, neatly and sensuously so, and also intelligent, intelligent with both amusement and wariness, but it was not certain always if the tension one sensed in her was that of her character or of the actress. It takes discipline, imagination, and strength to live for a long time with sustained tension in order to attain a goal; and that describes her character–someone trying to live by a principle of social responsibility that others have compromised or given up completely. Not all agree with qualms about Washington’s performance: “The actors do their best with the limited material, especially Washington, whose particular brand of sensitivity and exasperation has become a welcome and familiar presence in the last few years,” wrote Mick LaSalle in The San Francisco Chronicle (December 10, 2010).
One of the strangest scenes is when the local Panther leader, DoRight, an antagonist to Marcus, realizes that Marcus did not try to betray him, did not plant the gun the policeman wanted planted: DoRight, a volatile man, realizes that he misjudged Marcus but that does not seem very significant. It should be. Whatever its flaws, the film Night Catches Us offers the opportunity to examine a significant and controversial era and the kind of sensibility that sees the crude and the rough, and the hateful and ignorant, as authentic emblems of experience and identity; thus, slogans replace reasoned argument, and cursing and yelling replace mannered articulation. Mediocrity, not accomplishment, becomes the admired thing. It is the age of the bully, of the thug. War, not peace, is an ideal. It is an ignoble age, coming after the heroism and nobility of the great days of the civil rights movement: people who did not have the intelligence or stamina to run a small community center, people who knew little of culture and nothing of nations, were running around calling themselves cultural nationalists. People who did not know anything about the history, traditions, and relations of people of color to folk culture, or to popular, classical and experimental art had the nerve to issue cultural edicts: people who knew nothing of the African banjo, drum, and harp or of the black American string band tradition, of Berry Gordy’s Motown, of Paul Robeson and Marian Anderson, or of jazz, were issuing orders about what is and is not black art. Black Art, Black Power, the Black Panthers–the word black was being used like a holy talisman, only one that attracted rather than repelled vampires, draining essential elements–integrity, originality–out of almost anyone. It was the age of the hustle, a universal hustle. People who were afraid of individuality were treacherous enough to try to police it–they were riding high then, forming the tyranny of the loquacious rabble, soul-destroyers bragging about greatness of soul–and the spirit of the age, an age of impulse and rage, an age of stupidity, an age of thugger–allowed and promoted the denigration of the gifted and the accomplished.
Plato, Nietzsche, and Wittgenstein have something to teach. Montaigne, Emerson and Thoreau, and John Dewey have something to teach. As do John Steinbeck, Adrienne Rich and Wendell Berry. The cultivated mind can find pleasure and wisdom in the cultures of Europe and Africa, Asia, and Latin America and more: and the works of Chinua Achebe, Louis Armstrong, Thomas Bernhard, Anthony Braxton, Charles Burnett, Chaplin, Chekhov, Patrice Chereau, Julie Dash, Robert DeNiro, Robert Duncan, Ava DuVernay, Duke Ellington, Buchi Emecheta, Lucian Freud, Ernest Gaines, Garbo, John Koethe, Kasi Lemmons, Denise Levertov, Audre Lorde, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Wynton Marsalis, Toni Morrison, Octavio Paz, Picasso, Rembrandt, Jean Renoir, Rilke, Diana Ross, Shakespeare, Wole Soyinka, Meryl Streep, Cecil Taylor, Turgenev, and Denzel Washington are treasures available to all who claim them. It is the gratifying world of the sensitive individual that must be preserved, protected: thus, that world, as resource and symbol, is saved for all of us. Yet, the ignorant, the culturally crippled, are not equipped to consider that great world; and as they are not equipped, many of them would prefer that no one be equipped. Generations have been sacrificed to brutality and stupidity. That legacy of brutality and stupidity has its prominent descendants today: they can be seen in inarticulate but rhyme-bound sloganeering activists who hop on a plane to protest the latest public outrage before they know the facts, assuming permanent enemies everywhere; and that legacy of brutality and stupidity can be seen in cliques and organizations that require codes of exclusion, allegiance to narrow forms and understanding of identity, whether that of race, gender or sexuality. That terrible legacy can be seen in various us-versus-them paradigms that require no evidence or logic for proof: the totalitarian impulse masquerading as community. It can be seen in the diminished vision and voice of the African-American arts in which the serious has given way to the salacious and the simple (perceptible in the criminality, misogyny, and homophobia advanced in hip-hop, and the urban black gangster films: the worst forms of culture being the easiest for businessmen to sell to the largest numbers). That legacy of brutality and stupidity can be seen whenever and wherever failure rather than success is thought of as a black thing: only a very sick culture identifies ambition and accomplishment with self-hatred, and affirms lack of ambition and lack of achievement with being natural, real, and self-accepting. Worst of all, that legacy of brutality and stupidity can be seen and heard whenever little black children identify standard language use, cultural competence, and good grades with acting white.
The free individual is both the goal and the proof of a democracy. There are people who are doing fine, people who are well, creative, happy, and even prosperous, but the people who need significant art most are the ones who ignore it. The arts, if desired, if respected, are part of the intellectual and spiritual life of an individual and a nation, a source of wisdom and joy. The animating spirit–awareness, energy, love, purpose–is within. Interpretation, like art, can help us to remember the complexity of humanity, to retrieve the lives, the warmth, beyond abstraction and dissection. The thinker and writer can be a collector of fragments, bringing together the elements of culture instead of fostering divisions: a redeemer. However, there are still questions that can humble, inspire, or terrify: What do we, those of us who think of ourselves as intelligent and sensitive, want to do now? What becomes of African-American art in the age of an African-American president? When do we accept our full humanity?
Daniel Garrett, born in Louisiana, a graduate of the New School for Social Research in New York, was an intern at Africa Report, poetry editor for the male feminist magazine Changing Men, founded and acted as principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, wrote about painter Henry Tanner for Art & Antiques, organized the first interdepartmental environmental justice meeting at Audubon, wrote about fiction and poetry for World Literature Today and international film for Offscreen, and has done music reviews that constitute a history of popular music for The Compulsive Reader. Daniel Garrettï¿½s work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Black Film Review, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Wax Poetics