Born in Jamaica and raised in Maryland, director/writer Tanya Hamilton used what she knew best to craft her debut feature, “Night Catches Us.” Inspired by her mother’s close friend who in 1965 took part in organizing a sit-in at the White House in protest of the violence in Selma, Alabama, Hamilton wrote a story to do that woman – and the subsequent aftermath of her ordeal – justice.
“I think that in crafting this world and these characters I really tried to look at all the contradiction in this woman who was essentially my second mother,” Hamilton told indieWIRE, while in New York ahead of the film’s December 3rd release. “I wanted to look at where the cranky woman I knew came from, and how she started.”
“Night Catches Us” doesn’t recount that woman’s story, but uses her struggle an an inspiration to tell the story of Marcus (Anthony Mackie), an ex Black Panther, who returns to his working-class Philadelphia neighborhood in the summer of 1976, where the Panthers once reigned. Met with disdain from his former movement brothers, Marcus tries to rekindle his friendship with his best friend’s widow, Patricia (Kerry Washington), who reluctantly lets him back into her life.
Although this marks Hamilton’s feature film debut, she has already gone on to win awards from the Berlin International Film Festival and New Line Cinema for her short film “The Killers” in 1997. That same year, she was the recipient of the Director’s Guild of America Award for Best Female Director. “Night Catches Us” is itself a product of the Sundance Screenwriter and Filmmaker Lab, where she acts as a Fellow.
Despite this pedigree and the support from Sundance, Hamilton is extremely humble in person, and spoke freely of feeling intimated by working with stars of such caliber for her first feature.
“It was scary,” she admitted. “Going into it, I thought, ‘Okay I know the story, but how do I talk to these actors?’ I don’t know that I’ll ever frankly lose that.”
Hamilton candidly described the first scene she shot, a major confrontation between the two leads, as “awful.”
“It had nothing to do with the actors, but my abilities as a director,” she said. “I remember doing that scene and just not communicating well. I look at that scene as my great example of where I started and where I ended up. I think it’s all about communication, but it’s also about self confidence. When I think I second guessed my ability to be confident, I think that the work reflects it. And when you embrace the idea that you know, then I think it gets better.”
One thing Hamilton has always felt secure in is her voice as a black filmmaker. She described going into the shoot with a really definite sense of her race, and her ability to tell this story that meant so much to her.
“The glasses I wear are very much about race,” Hamilton said. “Meaning that it’s what I think about, it’s how I often view the world, it’s how I dissect things. The analytical part of me is wrapped up in this idea of race and class.”
What she didn’t foresee was being confronted with the fact that she’s a female filmmaker.
“I think I went into this with the race factor at the front of my brain, never ever thinking of the female part,” Hamilton said. “I never distilled the world in that way. But what I found in making the film was that it’s very much present. I think I was naive. I had never experienced the world in terms of gender this much.”
That realization hasn’t slowed Hamilton down. She currently has two projects in the works: one a love story set in Jamaica during a violent election, and a drama that centers on two Native American brothers who struggle to build casino but meet a roadblock when they come up against the D.C. world of politics.
“I can only speak to things I find interesting,” Hamilton said with regards to her future. “I want to make all sorts of movies about all sorts of people. But whatever they are, whether it’s something about Bosnia, Rwanda, Jamaica, whatever – I’m interested ultimately in crafting small simpler stories in the context of larger, social, political backdrop. I think that’s who I am. As long as it can have some sort of larger implication in that, I’m interested.”