Those hoping to find respite from the muggy summer weather within the cool confines of the Newark Museum found themselves out of luck Wednesday. The Newark Museum presented the 37th annual Newark Black Film Festival to a packed house, that allowed for standing room only to view "Night Catches Us," the first film of the festival’s six-week run.
The Newark Black Film Festival began as part of a touring black film festival put together by African American filmmaker Oliver Franklin, who worked at the Annenberg Center of the University of Pennsylvania in 1972. Gus Henningburg, at the time the executive director of the Greater Newark Urban Coalition, took notice of the festival and helped bring it to Newark in 1974. The Newark Museum soon took over responsibility for showcasing films, officially making it the Newark Black Film Festival.
This year's inaugural film, "Night Catches Us," takes place, coincidentally, near the burgeoning years of the Newark Black Film Festival itself, in 1976. Marcus (Anthony Mackie) returns to his hometown of Philadelphia for his father’s funeral after years of exile due to the mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of one of his fellow Black Panthers. Marcus' return becomes complicated when he meets up with former comrades, Patricia (Kerry Washington), now a mother, and DoRight (Jamie Hector) who now leads the former Black Panthers in Philadelphia.
Although the film takes a little too long in introducing its conflicts and characters, the pacing is deliberate. The tension between Marcus, Patricia and DoRight percolates underneath the façade of the weary town with both aspects infusing every frame of film. By the end, the tension doesn't so much explode in action-movie theatrics as it does bubble over, creating a more real and honest conclusion for the film. Director Tanya Hamilton does her strongest work here by evoking an era and a place that few of us have first-hand knowledge of.
Besides creating a truly authentic picture of Philadelphia in the '70s, Hamilton has also accomplished something rare in her story (she is the screenwriter, as well). Rather than attempt a didactic tale discussing the history of the Black Panthers, she creates a picture that is personal. Her story takes place during the waning years of the Black Power movement. It isn’t about a fight or a struggle. It’s about the aftermath of the decisions made during those years.
Although Hamilton is reluctant to call the Black Power movement "romantic," she explained that romanticism is partly what drew her to the subject matter.
"There is something, to me, very romantic about it. Again, it's not my history, I didn't live it. I'm totally a visitor," Hamilton told Patch, referring to her Jamaican upbringing, "but I think I tried to kind of cut into this film all these pieces of the history, the people, and the things I write about."
The Newark Black Film Festival will continue next Wednesday, July 6, with the classic Lena Horne film "Cabin in the Sky" at 7 p.m. at the Newark Museum. The Youth Cinema series starts next Wednesday, as well, with a trio of short films showing at 1 p.m. at the Newark Museum.