Thursday, January 6, 2011

Night Catches Us

USA  (90 mi)  2010  d:  Tanya Hamilton 

Mama’s in the kitchen feeding the entire neighborhood.       —Iris (Jamara Griffin)

This plays out like a movie of the week Black Panther melodrama, a nostalgic-tinged reminder of the Panther presence in black urban neighborhoods in the late 60’s to middle 70’s, now a faded and distant memory that a few of the former participants rarely if ever speak of any more.  The lingering memories, however, hover over this picture like a dark cloud.  Using original black and white archival footage of the Black Panthers, including images of Fred Hampton and Bobby Seale, these serve as a reminder of the hopes and aspirations of blacks no longer being intimidated by police brutality which typically reserved its harshest treatment for the black community.  The whole gist of the story is told like the return of the prodigal son, where Anthony Mackie as Marcus, a former Panther, returns after a mysterious four year absence to Philadelphia in 1976 for his father’s funeral.  His brother, a devout Muslim, immediately treats him like an outsider who has abandoned his righteous place in the family, and basically thinks of him as a non-entity, and is already in the process of selling the family home, giving Marcus an ultimatum to move out as soon as possible.  Simultaneously, a young 9-year old girl Iris (Jamara Griffin) grows curious about a family photograph showing her mother Patricia, Kerry Washington, another former Panther member alongside several other Panthers, in particular the man next to her deceased father, as she’s seen him recently parked nearby in his car.  Iris spends a good deal of her time on the front porch where the people are constantly passing by, but she senses something different about this man. 

Marcus actually pays them a visit, where Patricia has continued to stay active with community organizing and is the face of the always needed legal defense funds, an everpresent force in getting people out of jail for minor or trumped up charges with the police, a common occurrence in black neighborhoods.  And in turn, Patricia invites Marcus to a pot luck backyard fundraiser, where his presence causes a commotion, as people who were apparently happy that he was gone are not thrilled to see him back.  A neighborhood thug even spray paints the word “snitch” on his car, as word on the street is that he snitched to the FBI, which got Patricia’s husband shot, where the mythology is that he took a good many cops with him.  Of interest is the discovery of a Black Panther comic book which portrays the police as pigs, where Panthers are routinely attacking the pigs.  Patricia has a mentally challenged 19-year old cousin Jimmy (Amari Cheatom) who idolizes the comic book perception and continues to preach black nationalism and “offing the pigs” even after Marcus informs him the comics were printed by the FBI and were intended to incite violence in order to justify a heavy police response, which was basically to shoot first and leave no prisoners.  This complex police informer mythology continues to plague the community to this day.  This film doesn’t examine the historical roots of the problem, which is entrenched in an era of police corruption protecting its hold on a white majority police force, just acknowledges its existence in the black community, creating a fictional story using this history as a backdrop, where the period funk music by the Roots is nothing less than revelatory, especially the use of Syl Johnson’s anguishing lament “Is It Because I’m Black” (7:40 on YouTube).

Though it’s not mentioned in the film, those in Chicago are well aware of what happened to Fred Hampton, Chairman of the Chicago Black Panther Party, who on a tip from an informant was assassinated by a morning police raid into his apartment, where according to a forensics report, 99 bullets were found entering the apartment from the outside, while only 1 bullet was ever fired from inside, hardly the barrage reported by the police to justify their actions.  All police officers were exonerated, while the FBI informant, William O'Neal, later committed suicide after his court testimony admitting his involvement in setting up the raid, actually placing a barbiturate in Hampton’s Kool-Aid so he would not awake in the morning.  Anyone with any knowledge of the police treatment of Panthers is aware of similar stories, where in Philadelphia, police commissioner Frank Rizzo raided the offices of the Philadelphia Panther Party, and later as Mayor evicted a house of black nationalists known as MOVE, an action escalating into violence.  Despite his heavy handed and racially divisive police tactics, he had a statue built for him, like Rocky, which stands in front of the Municipal Services Building in Philadelphia Center City. 

This racially divided history where truth rarely finds the light of day still conjures up ghosts of the dead, where few speak for those original dreams and ideals which quickly got lost, misrepresented, and demonized when a new era of law and order was ushered in.  One’s view about the Panthers still seems to depend on which side you’re on, which makes a film like this get zero financial backing, so few will ever see it.  If truth be told, however, despite the presence of the rare archival Panther footage, this film does not match the sparks and intensity of the times, or examine its turbulence, but instead builds a quiet and somber story which reflects the vacuum left in the wake of the Panthers, an era of confusion and disillusionment where black males in particular get caught up in gangs and having to fight over every piece of turf and every last crumb in their ravaged neighborhoods, all too often resorting to crime, hopelessly thinking the odds are stacked against them so this is the only means left to survive.  The thought of getting out for better schools and better neighborhoods in the suburbs becomes just as appealing to blacks as whites, so the connection to one’s neighborhood is tenuous and filled with uncertainty, which is certainly the mindset of the film.  It’s basically a rekindled love story where the performances are adequate at best, with the exception of Anthony Mackie who is riveting throughout, always a standout performer, and here he is wise beyond his years, showing maturity and restraint, but also taking responsibility for his present day actions even as those around him harbor grudges and continue to repudiate him for what they perceive as the tragic mistakes of the past.  

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