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New Directors/New Films ’10 | Director Tanya Hamilton Cuts Close to Home With “Night Catches Us”

New Directors/New Films '10 | Director Tanya Hamilton Cuts Close to Home With "Night Catches Us"

Social dissent told through a personal story is the focus of “Night Catches Us,” screening in the 2010 New Directors/New Films series. The debut feature from Tanya Hamilton exposes the realities of African-American life during the final days of the Black Power movement, as potluck suppers, run-ins with the authorities, and lingering radicalism threaten to set off a neighborhood teetering on the edge. Set in Philadelphia in 1976, “Night Catches Us” focuses on two former Black Panther activists (Anthony Mackie and Kerry Washington) who reunite during the summer before Jimmy Carter’s election.

Through two people drawn together despite their past, the film paints a fresh perspective of the era and gives an allegory for our own times in the age of Obama. Playing two friends forced to confront personal and political demons, Mackie and Washington give spectacular performances, while Hamilton’s use of a compelling soundtrack (by The Roots) and moving archival footage bring to life the history of black resistance. [Synopsis provided by New Directors/New Films]

“Night Catches Us”
Director: Tanya Hamilton
Screenwriter: Tanya Hamilton
Cast: Anthony Mackie, Kerry Washington, Jamie Hector, Wendell Pierce, Jamara Griffin
Producers: Ron Simons, Sean Costello, Jason Orans
Composer: Music composed and performed by The Roots
Cinematographer: David Tumblety
Editors: Affonso Gonçalves, John Chimples
Production Designer: Beth Mickle
90 minutes

Editor’s Note: This is one interview in a series profiling directors whose films are screening at the 2010 New Directors/New Films Festival, currently underway.

Director and screenwriter Tanya Hamilton on becoming a filmmaker and her film “Night Catches Us”…

I’m originally from Jamaica and grew up in Maryland after I came to this country when I was eight. I was a painter for a long time, then I started making short films when I was in undergrad at Cooper Union. It was a natural progression, really. As a painter I loved to tell stories, and as a filmmaker and writer I do the same thing in a more explicit, but no less artful, way.

My mother’s close friend, a woman who helped rear me, was one of several young people who in 1965 organized a sit-in at the White House in protest of the violence in Selma, Alabama. The sit-in only lasted a few hours. They were carted out the back and each given a one-year jail sentence. But the impact of that day reverberated through her life forever. I was always interested in how that single event influenced her life, career choices, politics and loves. “Night Catches Us” takes its inspiration from this. I endeavored to write about people like her who have returned from a war—in this case, the aftermath of the Black Panther Party movement—and are trying to outrun their past.

Director Tanya Hamilton. Photo courtesy of New Directors/New Films.

I love to collaborate; film is a magical medium that offers ample opportunity for it. I think it’s important to gather the most talented people available and inspire their input into a project. It’s my vision that each film I make, when finished, becomes the collective language of all my collaborators.

Financing [was the most difficult part of this project]. It was hard to get people to see the value of a film like this AND to put money behind it. It took us over ten years to get it made.

What Hamilton hopes audiences will take away from her film…

I hope the experience of this film offers viewers a peek into a world underrepresented on screen — a vision of the American Black Panther Party that I knew and isn’t often shown. Additionally, I hope they enjoy the artistry and especially the music from The Roots, which is really rich.

Hamilton on her inspirations…

“Fat City” because I love the rough edges around all the characters and Huston’s unbroken vision and respect for naturalism. “Mean Streets” is a personal favorite since I first saw it years ago. During the filming of this movie, I watched the bar fight scene many times for inspiration. “Lumumba” for its spectacular vision and its first ten minutes in which Raoul Peck sums up the political conundrum of colonialism. “To Kill a Mockingbird” for its rare narrative balance to nimbly bridge the adult and kid worlds. And because Gregory Peck’s performance is amazing and beautiful.

…and what’s in store for her future…

I have two projects I hope to work on next. One is a thriller/love story set in Jamaica during a violent election. The other is a film about two brothers in fledgling Native American tribe building their first casino and confronting the unforgiving world of D.C. politics to achieve their goal.

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