That’s Classic – Tanya Hamilton's Small Stories with Big Resonance

Writer-director Tanya Hamilton can draw a clear, straight line between her debut feature film, Night Catches Us—up for best first feature at Saturday’s Independent Spirit Awards—and an earlier American classic: To Kill a Mockingbird, both Harper Lee’s 1960 Pulitzer Prize–winning novel and the 1962 film version starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch. When Hamilton first began work on her screenplay about a group of former Black Panthers trying to pick up their lives after their political moment has passed, she planned to tell the story through the eyes of a young girl the same age as Scout, and with the same stubborn drive to make sense of very difficult, very adult truths. While Hamilton eventually shifted her story’s focus to Marcus (a former Panther played with rueful, hard-won wisdom by Anthony Mackie), what didn’t change was her film’s commitment to searching out hard truths and sharing them.

Hamilton is the inaugural guest of a new column in which The Independent’s Beth Brosnan asks independent filmmakers to describe how classic Hollywood films have inspired and influenced their work in unexpected ways.

Beth Brosnan: How much does Hollywood film history feed your work, and in what ways?

Tanya Hamilton: All of my undergrad film education [at Cooper Union] was almost entirely avant-garde. Then, when I went to grad school at Columbia, it was almost the opposite. A lot of the faculty members were old-school Hollywood people, and I was exposed to a lot of older films I had never seen and to stars like Barbara Stanwyck and Joseph Cotton, whom I really love.

What I learned from classic Hollywood films is how to construct narratives the “right” way—i.e., the Hollywood way. Classic Hollywood films have the ability to craft simple, archetypal characters with fatal flaws, and to have those characters inhabit layered worlds while still managing to keep the stories simple. Great movies like The Third Man do that.

Another thing I learned from these movies was the bigness of film—the largeness of the moment, the largeness of character. That left a very indelible mark. I once saw a documentary about Bette Davis in which she talked about what makes movies work. She said something like, “Realism had no part in it.” That sort of makes sense.

BB: What particular Hollywood films were useful or influential to you in the making of Night Catches Us?

Hamilton: There are a handful of movies I really love and carry with me. To Kill a Mockingbird (1962, Robert Mulligan) is a film I spent a lot of time looking at and thinking about, particularly early on as I was writing the screenplay. What I loved was the idea of this one tiny community affected by something enormous, but you work your way at [this large issue] through a small lens. To Kill a Mockingbird is a small story that resonates big.

Another film that was important to me was Fat City (1972), directed by John Huston. It’s a great movie, and visually it was probably the film I used the most as my model in Night Catches Us. I watched it and just tried to get inside it. Not for any particular scenes, but for the hyper-realism of the film’s look, the way the actors inhabit their space as if the camera doesn’t even exist. Also, I think the film is honest, both to the characters and to the audience. That’s not indulged often in big Hollywood films [today]. Maybe it wasn’t back then either.

And then there’s Mean Streets (1973), an all-time favorite of mine. What I love is the way that Scorsese is able to visually, and viscerally, build this world—the minutia of how that world is constructed is brilliant. The bar fight scene in Night Catches Us was directly influenced by the bar scene in Mean Streets. We watched that scene over and over, and I talked about why I love it—it has a language, a point of view. Love it or hate it, that scene belongs to Scorsese, and I have always loved it.

There are also a couple of non-Hollywood films that were important to me: Nicholas Roeg’s Walkabout (1971), which is a visual delight, and Raoul Peck’s Lumumba (2000), which is about political revolution and which combines some wonderful documentary footage of [Congolese independence leader] Patrice Lumumba along with the narrative.

BB: That’s two strong parallels with Night Catches Us. What were the challenges of combining your own original dramatic footage with actual documentary footage of the Black Panthers?

Hamilton: You can risk having that documentary footage be more authentic than your film. At one point, we had a lot more documentary footage in, and we had to cut it out because it was overwhelming the narrative.

What the editor and I knew we needed to do—and beyond finding the footage, what was essentially the hardest part for us—was to create a very central part for that footage [within] the narrative, and really allow that footage to have its own arc, essentially creating its own separate narrative.

And at the same time, we didn’t want to use it as a flashback; we wanted to make it a collective history, not just a character’s backstory. We really had to work at that. That history belongs not only to the characters, but also to anyone who lived through that time and was part of that movement.

BB: What kind of inspiration and nourishment do older Hollywood films, whose focus was almost entirely on the lives and experiences of white people, offer to filmmakers of color?

Hamilton: That’s actually a really good question. I kind of compartmentalize. While a film like To Kill a Mockingbird feels politically in the wrong place, I have enough respect for it and understanding of it that I can [allow for] the times in which it was made, and the political context of that world.

What I appreciate about the film is how well they distilled and interpreted the book. The adaptation was insightful and brilliant, and really instructive about how to make choices that benefit the narrative that bolster and inform it. For me, as a writer/director that outweighs whatever other issues the film has.

So I think that there are, actually, a lot of older films that are truly compelling on a social and political level, if not a racial level. They may not touch on race [directly], but in metaphor they might be dealing with it anyway. If they are broad enough, those films can speak to many people, from many places.

For more information, visit the Night Catches Us website.

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