Movie director Tanya Hamilton talks about debut film 'Night Catches Us'

Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 25, 2010; 11:07 PM

In the movie "Night Catches Us," directed by debut filmmaker Tanya Hamilton, the audience watches as a curious girl in braids relentlessly peels back thin strips of wallpaper from her family's living room.

The wall holds secrets, the girl suspects. Her mother and father were Black Panthers, and her father was killed in the liberation movement. But questions linger, and nobody will give the girl, Iris, answers. Instinctively, she rips at the wallpaper, which finally opens to reveal blood stains and bullet holes. Iris stands back.

"They're all around us - ghosts," Iris will say later.

The complexity of past events and untidy endings intrigues writer and director Hamilton, who was born in Jamaica but moved as a child to the Washington area. She graduated from the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, where she studied painting. She made the leap from painting to filmmaking at Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art and later at Columbia University. After winning acclaim for her short film "The Killers," Hamilton wrote "Night Catches Us."

The film beautifully captures the struggles of the '70s, as well as the decade's atmospherics - the Afros, the bell bottoms, the music. Hamilton says her objective was to provoke audiences to think about the emotional lives of ordinary people in the liberation struggle and consider the ways in which a single yet deadly mistake can reverberate in the life of a young person.

Starring Anthony Mackie of "The Hurt Locker" and Kerry Washington, well known for her role in "Ray," "Night Catches Us" begins in the summer of 1976 in Philadelphia, home to a chapter of the Black Panthers and a city where tensions between regular people and police ran high. Mackie, who plays the character Marcus, returns home for his father's funeral after a mysterious four-year absence. He is met with cold stares from former Panthers who suspect him of selling out to federal authorities. Marcus is embraced by Patricia, played by Washington. She is the widow of his best friend, a Black Panther. The lives of Patrica and Marcus are connected by secrets that Iris is trying to unravel.

The movie opened at this year's Sundance Film Festival, where critics praised it for its portrayal of the political and personal stories of the Black Power movement. The film won the audience award at the 2010 New Orleans Film Festival, and it received the Seattle Film Festival's award for Best American Film for what the jury called a "profound exploration of a chapter of American history that is woefully underexplored." Strong reviews prompted Magnolia Pictures to sign it.

"The film is my language," says Hamilton, 42, who wears her hair in twists. "I am interested in making films that have social and political relevance."

Wearing a sunset-orange sweater, Hamilton is finishing a carrot muffin in the well-lighted cafe on 23rd Street NW, next to the West End Cinema, where her film will be shown in eight minutes. Hamilton sweeps the crumbs into a paper napkin and slides out of the red booth. Outside, snow has fallen. The weather is dismal, an apt setting for unhappy endings.

Hamilton does not like happy endings for her films, preferring complicated tales in which lovers do not ride off together into the sunset.

Although she considers herself a "cheery" person, she acknowledges that her muse is of a different mind. "Your work is an indication of who you are truly inside your heart. . . . I look at my work and ask myself: Why is it more satisfying to me when characters in 'Night Catches Us' don't walk away together?' "

An unhappy ending feels "more real and authentic," she says she has concluded. "It feels the way reality works."

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