When last we saw Kerry Washington and Anthony Mackie together, they were quarreling ex-lovers She Hate Me, Spike Lee‘s epic misfire about corporate malfeasance, lipstick lesbians and, um, nontraditional family arrangements. It was hard to gauge whether the two have any screen chemistry, since they were forced to spout lots of clunky, implausible lines. On the plus side, they were very well-lit.
Night is set in the Germantown section of Philly, during the mid-1970s. The city’s old folks talk about those days, when Frank Rizzo was in ascendancy, as if Bull Connor stalked the streets. The city’s police were notorious for their brutality and pettiness, and they famously pre-empted a a Black Panther rally by making the Panthers strip-search on the sidewalk as flashbulbs popped.
Marcus (Mackie) is an ex-Panther returning to his old neighborhood after his father’s death, to help his brother Bostick (Black Thought) sell the family home. In his absence, the local group of Panthers have dissolved, and not everyone is thrilled to see him. Marcus bounced after his best friend, Neil, the group’s charismatic leader, was gunned down by police in retaliation for the shooting of a police officer in which Panthers were involved. Most folks in the neighborhood including MarloDoRight (Jamie Hector), the leader of all those erstwhile Panthers, think he snitched and set up the shooting.
Marcus ends up in a spare bedroom in the home of Patricia (Washington) , Neil’s former lover. Patricia is a former Panther herself, and has carved out a tenuous existence as an attorney and something of a neighborhood godmother. She feeds the block’s children and gives legal advice to the former Panthers. She also seems to know more about the circumstances surrounding Neil’s shooting then she lets on. Her 10-year-old daughter, Iris, helps Jimmy (Amari Cheatom), an angry local teenager amped up on black nationalist rhetoric, collect cans for money.
These dynamics aren’t initially clear, and everyone’s wariness of Marcus’s return adds a bit of tension — until suddenly folks get all weirdly expository. Bostick chides Marcus for always running away when things get rough. (Patricia does the same later. “You, of all people, lecturing me on commitment!”) Patricia’s boyfriend, whom we’re to gather is some jive-ass bourgie Negro, yells at her because she just won’t leave the house and the neighborhood where she has so many memories that have caused her so much misery. Several characters, including BunkDetective Gordon (Wendell Pierce), bring up Marcus’s long (and possibly mutual) attraction toward Patricia. Show, don’t tell, my dudes. (Or barring that, tell less showily.)
Jimmy’s growing and potentially violent nihilism threatens to upend the tenuous, tense lives of all these reformed radicals. He hasn’t really gamed out his simplistic Black Panther fantasies, which come to tragic fruition. Of all the subplots in the story — the romantic tension between Patricia and Marcus, the questions surrounding Neil’s execution at the hands of the police, Gordon’s attempts to flip Marcus into an informant — only the resolution to Jimmy’s storyline feels unrushed and of any consequence.
I can’t tell you how primed I was to love this movie. Philly! Racial strife! Several principal actors from The Wire! Black Thought! Kerry Washington, with whom I’m enjoying a very loving imaginary marriage! It’s scored by The Roots, for crying out loud! The movie begins with intrigue and closely guarded secrets on which we never really get purchase. But when it ends and everything is dutifully unspooled, none of what happens is all that clear or exciting.