As a way of celebrating this year’s nominees for the Spirit Awards in the weeks leading up to the ceremony, we reached out to as many as we could in an effort to better understand what went into their films, what they’ve gotten out of the experience, and where they’ve found their inspiration, both in regards to their work and other works of art that might’ve inspired them from the past year. Their answers will be published on a daily basis throughout February.
If you didn’t know Tanya Hamilton was a painter long before she ever studied filmmaking, you’d probably guess it roughly 15 minutes into her debut film “Night Catches Us.” In her Spirit Award nominee for Best First Feature, Hamilton does something extraordinary with what is ostensibly a period piece about two former Black Panthers trying to find their way in the years after the movement’s dissipated — she turns the ordinary into art. Told in glances as much as words, the story is one deeply rooted in history and yet isn’t inhibited at all by it, and surely not in the way its main characters are.
That past is brought to the fore when a picture of Marcus (Anthony Mackie), Patricia (Kerry Washington) and her late husband Neal falls from the pages of a comic book that Patty’s daughter (Jamara Griffin) flips through, which coincides with Marcus’ return to Philadelphia for his father’s funeral. Neal’s death hasn’t been explained to his daughter, nor does Hamilton seem to be in a rush to share it with the audience, letting it linger as just one of the many aspects of a time that’s largely uncertain. Neither Marcus or Patricia are entirely the idealists they once were — they can’t afford to be — though each are still headstrong in a world where there still isn’t racial equality.
The true beauty of “Night Catches Us,” aside from the elegant cinematography of David Tumblety and musical flourishes from The Roots, is how it presents such complex emotions in such a simple way. Having two of this generation’s finest actors in Mackie and Washington certainly doesn’t hurt, but the film is particularly striking in the way it drops in archival footage, bits of animation, and static shots of the working-class Philadelphia neighborhood where it’s set to capture the essence of the era without overwhelming the story at hand, which is akin to a tale of two lions forced to consider captivity. Whether its characters can ever break free is the central question of the film, but in terms of its own independent spirit, “Night Catches Us” answers with a resounding yes.
Why did you want to make this film?
I’m very interested in that section of time. I think that period of history is so interesting and there’s something tragic and romantic and kind of beautiful about that whole Black Power era. It’s not my history, but I was definitely interested in how the idea of revolution in a way might affect these people and I was trying to figure out a way to look at it from the aftermath of the movement and to look at it from this very mundane, ordinary perspective.
What was the best piece of advice you received prior to the making of the film?
The best piece of advice probably comes from my husband who’s a fiction writer and really encouraged me to focus in on the minutiae of the world and also to look at the small moments rather than anything big and dramatic. That’s something that I’m very inclined to be interested in anyway, but also, it’s something that I kept with me throughout making the film, both how I directed it and how it was cut and sort of visually.
What was the toughest thing to overcome, whether in a particular scene or the film as a whole?
It may be a very cliché answer, but I think it was money. It really does dictate so much of what either gets done or doesn’t get done. Maybe a nicer answer is I had to cut the screenplay down from 125 pages roughly to some place in the eighties. And that was obviously because of money. We had a very tiny budget to shoot it and so it was tough to have to do that, but in an odd way actually, I think it was good. I made some mistakes — I can see them — but in general, I think the film ended up being stronger because of it.
What’s been the most memorable moment while you’ve traveled with the film, either at a festival or otherwise?
I had a woman come up to me, I think, in Chicago who was probably in her seventies and was just such a regular working woman and she said that she liked the film a lot. She felt there were some problems with it, but overall she liked it. And I appreciated having this woman who is part of a demographic…these kinds of movies don’t always speak to that kind of demographic. I think the movies sometimes can also be narrow in their scope. And I appreciated that this woman came to see it and it resonated with her and I appreciated that she was honest to say she thought there were problems with it, but that she connected with the characters in the world. I felt very heartened by it.
What’s your favorite thing about your film that’s largely been uncommented upon?
I love the visual language of it a lot. I love the work that David Tumblety, who shot it, did – I think he’s an artist. I think as artists we were both able to work really well together and I love the way it looks and I love the small visual moments. That kind of goes back to that minutiae. I love many things about it, but I love the language a lot.
What’s been the most gratifying thing to come out of this film for you personally?
I think that probably the most gratifying part, beyond getting to work with people I really like a lot and building a little bit of a quasi-creative family, is that I got to show the film to so many people across the U.S. and that I was able to have so many conversations with ordinary people and the varied arc of the people, whether it was the kind of people who are very much part of the audience for movies like this or people who are completely not in any way. I loved the scope of that. I loved hearing what they had to say, positive and negative, and I think it broadened my sense of what an audience is and how important an audience is, which is something I didn’t actually, frankly, recognize before making it.
What’s been your favorite film, book or album from the past year?
I have a four-year-old, so I sadly don’t ever get out to see movies anymore. That’s sort of pathetic. Maybe a book is more appropriate and it’s a book I had not read before and found really fascinating. It’s a book called “The Intuitionist” by Colson Whitehead that is a marvelously brilliant book, a metaphor about race and politics and I really liked it a lot.