Both Frankie & Alice, and Night Catches Us examine race relations in the seventies – one more overtly than the other. They both had the unfortunate fate of being released and getting lukewarm reception from audiences (although Frankie & Alice is only now expanding in theatres).
Geoffrey Sax directs Frankie & Alice without palpable interest for the time period, in fact Sax seems least interested in any extraneous bit of his characters opting to single insularly put his focus on Berry – which ends up being a decision that works for him. Halle Berry has never ranked among my favourite actors but I am elated to see her returning to the good work that I know she’s capable.
It’s difficult to separate the film’s somewhat generic plot from the multiple incarnations of people with dissociative identity disorder. It’s a theme that ostensibly suggests mugging for the camera (and by extension) awards’ bait. But, Berry approaches the role with a striking amount of integrity ignoring – on the most obvious of levels at least – the potential for gimmickries that lies in the film. The fact that one of her multiple personalities is a racist ends up developing as a plot-point not played for the obvious shock potential one would expect. Even, Berry, in her occasional tendency to overdo employs a restraint here and plays well opposite Stellan Skarsgård. The two get the most signficant screen time, but Chandra Wilson and Phylicia Rashad offer up poignant supporting turns suggesting that they both deserve more recognition on the big screen. There comes a moment towards the end when the film becomes a bit too interested in being histrionic, but Vanessa Morgan (as a young Frankie) is surprisingly good in her part delivering on the emotional resonance along with Berry.
And, yet, though Night Catches Us exists with the very taut racial tension of the era Tanya Hamilton (writer and director) never takes it too far. There’s an admirable dormancy to the atmosphere that works in evoking that sort of unrest after great activity and in the midst of all this dissonance Marcus (Mackie) returns to his old neighbourhood where he may or may not have caused the death of his brother by ratting him out to the police.
Hamilton avoids the usual tricks, like making that issue a major plotpoint. Instead, she has Mackie and Washington playing opposite each other to great results. Hamilton is interested in studying her characters – each of them, an she almost always goes for the sedate instead of the jarring which works for her. The race relations are almost aside to the main arc of the broken characters trying to rebuild their lives, and though her sedateness could be mistaken for reticent she deserves praise either way.