“Surely we are being punished because of our brother.” Jacob’s resigned sons utter these words in the 42nd chapter of Genesis. The brothers had ventured to Egypt in the midst of a famine to purchase food for their families only to encounter the brother they thought was dead—well, murdered actually. Their supposedly dead brother, Joseph, doesn’t immediately reveal his identity and makes his kin feel the precariousness of their vulnerable position. They interpret their desperate situation as divine punishment, retribution for their earlier crimes against Joseph.
It is 1976 when Marcus returns to his Philadelphia home in Night Catches Us. His deceased father lies in a coffin in an otherwise empty room, a Bible on his chest opened to Genesis 42. As director Tanya Hamilton delicately unwinds the story, we learn Marcus brought punishment upon the family—a family that extends to the Black Panthers. This group of young African American men and women, variously lauded and feared, had not long before been a stabilizing presence in the neighborhood. Things have clearly changed and Marcus’ return surfaces painful and angry memories for many within the neighborhood.
The center of the fraying neighborhood is Patricia, one of the few who welcomes Marcus home. Patricia’s past is also murky, though her deep roots and almost desperate desire to remain in her home is the stark opposite to the prodigal Marcus. The story unfolds with tenderness and violence as Patricia and Marcus are drawn toward each other. But what will hold them together? Though they share the same troubled memory they have chosen wildly different ways forward. For Patricia hope resides in stability and place; for Marcus redemption must be sought outside the tangible limits of the past.
Night Catches Us is a relatively short film that takes it’s time pulling back layers of memory. A fantastic soundtrack by The Roots and timely black and white flashbacks to original Black Panther footage pull us into the tension Marcus and Patricia face as they navigate their reunion. Will these two manage a way to remain together in the present, or will their divergent reactions to the past be too much to overcome?