SUPER Emerging Scholars Explore Philly’s Soul

How film and movie scores transport audiences

This post is written in honor of National Arts and Humanities Month. We are highlighting different humanities topics that we are passionate about and hope you’ll share your passions with us too!

Students that attended AHF’s SUPER Emerging Scholars institute at the University of Alabama last summer recently reconvened for a follow-up session on September 23rd and 24th. As part of their cultural enrichment experience, all of us attended one of Birmingham’s gems, the Sidewalk Film Festival, and the screening of the talented writer-director Tanya Hamilton ‘s “Night Catches Us.”
This film was most appropriate as this past summer the students had studied coming-of-age stories and films that allowed students to reflect upon their own, in-progress, coming-of-age story. Set in Philadelphia’s black community of 1976, the film, which stars Anthony Mackie (Marcus) and Kerry Washington (Patricia), explores their storied pasts and involvement with the Black Panther Party at the time of its decline. Both characters struggle with their complicated pasts in their efforts to unveil a brighter present.

The film captures the tenuous relations that existed between the police and the black community during the Black Panther Party era and how it was exacerbated by propaganda, corruption and miss-conceived perceptions. This was perhaps one of the most interesting revelations in the film. This revelation is instructive of how difficult relations between the police and the black community have persisted to this day.

The film, albeit light on dialogue, still had depth by its use of imagery and music. I must admit, the light dialogue took some getting used to, especially if you are accustomed to Hollywood-styled movies. However, the paintings, drawings and the characters’ body language told the story well and, I would argue, with a stronger emphasis than words could have. Oh, and the music! The score, soulful indeed, was reminiscent of the Philly soul sound created by pioneers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, “the architects,” as my dad called them. Think “The Sound of Philadelphia” by Mother Father Sister Brother (MFSB), or one of my favorites “Me and Mrs. Jones” by Billy Paul. Gamble and Huff were the progenitors that led the way for the highly talented and artistic hip-hop group, The Roots, and their score of this film. All throughout, the film is infused with the soulful sounds of Philly.

I love how films’ scores are just as important as the film script itself. There is no doubt that the score by The Roots is a perfect complement to the film. Evoking feeling and emotion from start to finish, that is what makes a good score and, more overly, what makes a great film.

As a humanities practitioner, I’m always amazed at how films such as this one hold so much power. Having been born well after the civil rights and black power movements, I am appreciative that film has the power to allow me and my students to journey with the characters to a time, place and life that we did not have an opportunity to experience first-hand. James Kemp, an SES participant, underscores this point with his response to the movie: “The film further explained the struggles that the people of that day were going through. With this understanding, I was able to emotionally and mentally connect with the characters.” That is the power that the humanities hold, in this case the power that film holds. If you missed this film at the Sidewalk Film Festival, visit the official film site here: www.nightcatchesus.com.