By DeNeen L. Brown
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."
Reality is what concerns her most on this snowy evening. She is concerned about the film's economic success. "My film is a critical success. We've gotten the best reviews possible, but financially it's struggling." She worries about filmmakers who may come after her and want to portray ordinary black people on the big screen.
Hamilton pays the cashier and descends the steps to the theater. To be honest, she says, her stomach is dropping as she talks. She knows this is not what the distribution company wants her to say. But she can't help but be honest. She is fighting against the fate of many independent filmmakers, who pour their souls into a screenplay, spend years trying to get financial backing, live what seems like a lifetime with characters talking in their heads. Finally, a number of factors come together: The movie gets funding. Big Hollywood stars sign on to perform. The critics love it. The movie opens. Then what?
"We live in a time when you can't struggle past the first week," Hamilton says. "The numbers have to come up. I think without financial success, it becomes even more difficult for the next one to come through the door - the film that comes after me. I really believe the door is eking open. Then you squeeze through and you are in the room by yourself. You get edged out. Someone else squeezes in. There are never three or four people in the room at the same time. You are always in there alone. There are so few African American films in cinema."
Hamilton opens the door to movie theater, where fans are waiting. "I am no good at being a politician. But as a filmmaker, I want to make a mark that adds to the conversation about people of color," Hamilton says. "Not a lot of movies are made about black people just being people. I hope people can see the film and really connect to characters and take away the idea that humanity exists with people of color" - in a way in which race disappears and it becomes simply a film about people.
Hamilton grew up in Spanish Town, Jamaica. "Jamaica has great positives in my life," she says. "It's my home. The older I grow, the more I realize really what a Jamaican I am." Her childhood there inspires themes in her movies.
Jamaica, she says, "has a precarious relationship between men and their children. It is a very pedestrian story. I think my relationship with my father is wrapped in my relationship with Jamaica."
This is a theme that plays out in "Night Catches Us" - the disconnected relationship between father and child. Hamilton says she did not know her father well in Jamaica, where he was a policeman. "When you don't know a parent, I feel like sure that is in a way a ghost hovering over you--where he came from, what defined him and ultimately what defines you. As a young person, I lived with that ghost. Living with the consequences of the past whether or not it is determined by you."
When Hamilton was 7, her mother left for the United States. Hamilton and her younger brother stayed behind with their grandmother. "We were separated from our mother for a year," Hamilton said. Hamilton arrived in the United States when she was 8.
"Night Catches Us," Hamilton says, was inspired by the story of Carol Lawson-Green, a close friend of Hamilton's mother. In 1965, Green and a group of six students organized a sit-in at the White House to protest violence in Selma, Ala. They walked into the White House and refused to leave, demanding that President Lyndon B. Johnson send troops to Selma. The students were arrested. "All got at least a six-month jail sentence," Hamilton says. "Normally they would get a $50 fine. But they threw the book at them."
"That tiny moment reverberated far and wide in Carol's life. I was fascinated." As a girl, Hamilton pestered her "aunt" Carol with questions about the protest. "I love the idea these people did a thing that may not be the final moment in their life" but shaped the rest of their lives. Hamilton searched for answers much like the girl peeling the wallpaper.
On the dismal night, the screening ends. The audience applauds. "Brilliant!" one man shouts. "Such a beautiful movie," a woman says. Hamilton takes a seat in front of the screen as the credits roll behind her. The audience has embraced her work. She is raw and honest, talking about her hope for the film's success. The screen behind her fades. The theater goes dark. The crowd lines up in the lobby to have her sign the movie poster. Hamilton, still not sure of the fate of the film, takes delight in her crowd.
"Each of us is living with decisions someone else has made," she says. Endings are complicated.