“Night Catches Us” is set in a Philadelphia neighborhood in 1976, but it feels like a dispatch from a much more distant place or time. Watching it felt a lot like watching a foreign film from an unfamiliar country, both fascinating and a little disorienting. I felt not quite caught up on the social and historical forces that have shaped the characters, but at the same time, interested in them, in the ways their lives play out, and the ways they can look like mine and yet be utterly different, and vice versa.
You’ve heard of the Black Panthers, and the cultural and racial revolution of the ’60s. This is not a movie about that movement or that time, but about what came after – the years after the Panthers faded from the scene, leaving a lot of bewildered people behind, their problems unsolved and often exacerbated by the movement. Anthony Mackie is one of those, a man alienated in his neighborhood by his past. Kerry Washington is the woman he left behind, though perhaps not in the traditional sense. “Night Catches Us” is about their reunion, which is complicated, and allowed to be.
It’s a long ways from a perfect movie; the script meanders and has plenty of pacing problems, and there are characters at the beginning – namely, Mackie’s own family – that seem like they’re going to be major players, but then disappear after the first act. But as an evocation of a time and place, and the people who inhabit it, “Night Catches Us” is an engaging, fascinating film. In the milieu of tiresomely quirky indie flicks about seemingly the same group of pseudo-bohemian young adults, this film is as refreshing as a cool drink of water.