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by Nigel M Smith
November 19, 2010 3:20 AM
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FUTURES | "Night Catches Us" Director Tanya Hamilton

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."

A scene from Tanya Hamilton's "Night Catches Us." [Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures]

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."

3 Comments

  • tim13 | November 20, 2010 2:25 AMReply

    So great to see this multi-faceted perspective on an important and under-discussed part of American history. The story weaves together a lot of complex character behavior. That and the distant time frame of the 70's and 60's with the specific locale of Philly could make it challenging for audiences to identify with. I worry that the slow pace and downbeat performances will also try viewer's patience. It requires some understanding of the time; the very real prejudice and corruption of Philadelphia police, the good work of the Black Panthers vs. the posturing, and negative publicity toward that group. It's great to see a bold story and look at this era, particularly today when divisive political rhetoric uncovers still deep racial prejudices. I think the film is flawed, but an important and forthright work of black cinema.

  • bnewman | November 19, 2010 10:24 AMReply

    I've been such a fan of Tanya, am so glad to see her getting this film out now!

  • Jason Gilmore | November 19, 2010 9:38 AMReply

    I saw Night Catches Us last night and it is a very well made film that has so many subtle layers, it requires multiple viewings. As a black filmmaker who is in pre-production on my own first feature, I tip my hat to Ms. Hamilton and look forward to seeing her future works.