Citizen Jane Report #1

The problem, it seems, is that no one can figure how to market this film because it doesn’t fit into any of the standard entertainment industry molds.   

 

 

Once again, the organizers of the Citizen Jane Film Festival (http://www.citizenjanefilm.org/) have outdone themselves with a weekend of great films and thought-provoking discussions about everything from the Black Panther Party to how to make a film about the closing of an auto plant when you don’t have permission to be filming there in the first place. And once again, I didn’t get to nearly everything (a physical impossibility), but I got to see enough impressive films that I’ll be sorting out my thoughts for weeks to come. That might be the best recommendation for this festival. Yes, it’s dedicated to showcasing the work of women in film, and yes, it provides amazing opportunities to learn how women in the industry are making it work (in a friendly small-group setting, not by shouting questions and answers in some huge auditorium). Most importantly, though, it provides the opportunity to see some amazing films that otherwise might fly under the radar.

 

On the features side, the big revelation for me was Night Catches Us (http://www.nightcatchesus.com/), a complex, intriguing film written and directed by Tanya Hamilton and set in Philadelphia’s African American community in the summer of 1976. According to the talkback it has only played a few festivals (including Sundance, where it was nominated for a Grand Jury Prize, and New Directors/New Films in New York City) and is scheduled for limited theatrical release in December as well as video release. If I heard correctly, the video release is slated to precede the theatrical release, which takes day and date one step further.

 

The problem, it seems, is that no one can figure how to market this film because it doesn’t fit into any of the standard entertainment industry molds. Pity; it’s one of the better films I’ve seen this year and manages to be both highly specific (it really feels like the action is taking place in a specific community in a specific year) and universal (because we all have to deal with issues of injustice, integrity and compromise). My advice is to watch for the video release—in other words, put it in your Netflix cue or the equivalent—because it’s well worth your while.

 

Marcus (Anthony Mackie) has returned home for his father’s funeral. He’s regarded as the black sheep not only of his family, who haven’t heard from him in four years, but also of the neighborhood, where people believe he was an FBI informant who caused the death of another neighborhood man. Marcus, like several characters in the film, used to be a Black Panther, and that shared history is a constant presence in the characters’ lives. The film even includes many clips from newsreel footage of that era. The problems of racial injustice were not solved by 1976, but the Black Panther era was over, and a major focus of the film is how different characters deal with that reality and move on with their lives.

 

Patricia (Kerry Washington), Marcus’s old flame, has become a civil rights lawyer and is focused on working, raising her precocious daughter Iris (Jamara Griffin) and being a force for good in her neighborhood. Other characters represent, sometimes a bit too obviously, different approaches to the problems facing African-Americans in mid-1970s urban America. Patricia is dating a lawyer (Ron Simons) who subscribes even more than she does to establishment values. Marcus’ brother (Tariq Trotter) has become a Muslim. There’s a group of local tough guys led by Jamie Hector who consider themselves neighborhood enforcers (they paint “SNITCH” on the side of Marcus’ car), and Patricia’s cousin Jimmy (Amari Cheatom) finds an outlet for his simmering anger in ill-judged acts of defiance.

 

Although there are sequences of extreme violence, much of Night Catches Us has a lived-in, almost languid feel, with artistic cinematography by David Tumblety capturing moments that are as perfectly framed as still photographs. The acting is first-rate, particularly from Mackie and Washington, the period detail (by production designer Beth Mickle) is amazing and the soundtrack by the Philadelphia band The Roots is a perfect match to the director’s vision. This film deserves to be seen by a wide audience, so let me leave you with this thought: if there’s one thing the 2009 Oscars taught us it’s that limited release does not mean limited quality. Kathryn Bigelow’s Best Picture winner The Hurt Locker is a case in point. | Sarah Boslaugh

 

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