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How Gay Soldiers Serve Openly Around The World
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
For the past 17 years, gays and lesbians have been allowed to serve in the
military only if their sexual orientation remains a secret. Last month, the
Pentagon released a report concluding that repealing the law and allowing gays
to serve openly would present only a low risk to the military's effectiveness,
even during wartime.
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said that repealing Don't Ask, Don't Tell was
a matter of urgency because if Congress doesn't act, a court decision could
impose immediate repeal, leaving the military no time for preparation.
But yesterday, Gates expressed skepticism that the lame-duck Congress would
bring the issue to a vote.
My guest, Nathaniel Frank, is a historian who wrote a report earlier this year
on why and how five countries changed their policies to allow gays and lesbians
to serve openly in the military: Britain, Israel, Canada, South Africa and
Australia. His report was published by the Palm Center of the University of
California Santa Barbara, where he was the senior research fellow. He's also
the author of a book about the impact of Don't Ask, Don't Tell called
Nathaniel Frank, welcome back to FRESH AIR.
Mr. NATHANIEL FRANK (Author, "Unfriendly Fire"): Good to be here.
GROSS: Would you give us an overview of which countries have militaries that
don't allow gays and lesbians to serve and which do?
Mr. FRANK: Sure. Most of the countries in Western Europe now allow gays to
serve, including the United Kingdom, our closest ally and probably the best
analogy for the U.S.; France; Italy; Spain; also some that might be surprising:
South Africa; Uruguay; in other parts of the world.
In Asia and Africa, there are often no policies at all. And they are either
because homosexuality is so often unspoken about or because there are civilian
laws against it, and there you can assume that it's not allowed.
GROSS: And what about if you're just looking at NATO?
Mr. FRANK: Within NATO, there are about 35 countries that appear to let gays
and lesbians serve. It just depends on whether you're looking for an outright
policy allowing it or simply the lack of a policy banning it. So there are at
least 25 countries that researchers have confirmed allow gays and lesbians to
serve openly. And that number goes to about 35 if you look at simply which
countries don't have a ban.
GROSS: Is there any other country in the world that has a policy like Don't
Ask, Don't Tell?
Mr. FRANK: No, there really isn't. Historically, there had been policies that
in practice were similar, so that there might be something where you would be
denied security clearance if you were suspected to be gay or lesbian, but it
wasn't a written-down policy. Or there would be euphemisms, you know, carnal
and unnatural behavior in the old days, something about morality, under which
commanders would discharge you.
In Israel for a period of time, if you said you were gay, or you were suspected
of being gay, you would be referred to a mandatory psychiatric evaluation. And
in some cases, that could lead to a discharge.
So there have been similar kinds of policies in practice, but there's nothing
that's been codified into a law in any other part of the world that actually
said: We will allow gays to serve if they pretend, in a sense, that they're not
GROSS: So let's look at Britain. Now, one of the concerns that Secretary of
Defense Robert Gates and the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mullen
have said is that they fear that the court challenge making its way through the
system now will end up reversing Don't Ask, Don't Tell, and if it happens
through the courts, the military is concerned that they won't be able to do it
in their own timely fashion.
Mr. FRANK: Right, in an orderly fashion is the phrase that they've been using.
That's right. It's very rare that this kind of a change comes about by military
personnel simply standing up and saying we would like to now allow gays. It
almost always comes through pressure of some kind or another, in many cases
mirroring where the culture is at that time. But of course, there's lags, and
there are gaps sometimes.
In Britain, there was a court case brought in the early 1990s that made its way
through the British court and actually lost. So the ban remained. But the court
warned the military that although we are upholding your right to have a ban,
the European Court of Human Rights is not likely to find this okay. And so that
triggered a series of events where the military created a commission similar to
the one that the U.S. created and just gave its report recently to assess their
Now, even that commission actually recommended retaining the ban, but as is
often the case with many other countries and is also playing out here in the
U.S., there was a court case. It didn't win, but it raised concern that the ban
was on its last legs, and the military ordered a relaxation of enforcement.
So in many, many cases, the actual end of a gay ban is preceded by a court case
and a relaxation of enforcement. And then, sure enough, when that case wound
its way up to and through the European Court of Human Rights in 1999, that
court struck it down. And just four months later, the military lifted the ban
and accepted the court case.
GROSS: So the military is basically forced to change in England.
Mr. FRANK: That's right. It was.
GROSS: So once it was forced to change, how did it go about figuring out what
the new policy was going to be and how gays and lesbians in the military were
going to be treated?
Mr. FRANK: Well, that's the question that so many people have been asking. And
what's kind of funny about it is that it's largely been much ado about nothing.
There isn't very much to do.
You know, people are talking here about years of training and education and
what will the policy be. Some people have said, well, Don't Ask, Don't Tell
ought to go, but what on Earth would we replace it with.
This is not like racial integration where you actually have â in some senses,
it is, but this is not like racial integration in that you're moving massive
amounts of personnel around. All it really means, to minimize it for a moment,
is that you stop kicking out gay people, that you let them serve.
There's already gay people, in other words, in these militaries. It's about
whether you acknowledge it, whether you allow it, whether you allow gay and
lesbian people to be honest. And so in Britain, it was three and a half months
after the court case, and they simply issued regulations saying this was now
There was a minimal amount of training. There were sessions with leaders to
make it absolutely clear that they would have buy-in. So certainly there were
certainly steps taken. But there isn't an enormous amount that needs to be done
or that has been done in these other countries beyond ceasing to fire people
and making clear that the new policy is that gay people will be allowed, that
they'll be respected, and in some cases, there is an additional code of conduct
that is promulgated in order to make those regulations clear.
GROSS: Now, let's look at Canada. Canada relaxed its ban on gays in the
military in 1988. When did it actually lift it?
Mr. FRANK: In 1992. So Canada, like Britain, did start by relaxing its ban. It
had a charter of rights and freedoms that it adopted in 1985. And in 1986,
amidst some pressure, it also, like Britain, created a commission to study its
policy on gays and lesbians.
Interestingly, in both cases, these surveys, these studies, similar to the one
in the U.S., surveyed service members to ask them their attitudes, their
feelings, their views about lifting the ban.
In both cases, in Britain and Canada, and these are very large surveys,
majorities said that they would not support serving with gays and lesbians.
Some actually said, large percentages said, that they would refuse to serve,
that they would leave, that they wouldn't work with gays and lesbians. And yet
when the transitions were actually made, almost no one left. So there's a big
gap between what people say and what actually happens.
Partly because of these surveys, both in Britain and Canada, the commissions
recommended against lifting the ban because they were taking too seriously, I
think, these stated concerns based on opinion surveys that don't actually
measure the likely impact on cohesion of repealing a policy. They are really
just opinion polls.
And so Canada also recommended against repeal, but the court case went through,
and the military lost at a lower level, and the military actually settled
because they knew they wouldn't win.
GROSS: So was Canada as swift in implementing the end of the gay ban as England
was? England did it within four months of the court case.
Mr. FRANK: Actually, Canada was quicker, and so was Australia, and so was
Israel. Australia and Israel didn't go through court cases. But taking three
and a half months for Britain between the court ruling and the implementation
was among the longest of the countries that researchers have looked at.
In many cases, the change was literally done overnight or within a week. There
was a court decision, and the gay ban was over. Or there was a decision made by
some other government department, and the ban was over. Again, this is because
gay people are already serving in these militaries, and although there are
useful analogies to integrating women in combat or racial integration, the
difference is that this is more about acknowledging something that's already
there than actually moving personnel around.
And so there's less of an argument for taking so much time, notwithstanding
that's what we see here in the U.S. is that the military seems to want to have
time to make the change.
GROSS: My guest is Nathaniel Frank. We'll talk more about his study of gays in
foreign militaries after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Nathaniel Frank, and we're
talking about a study that he wrote that was published earlier this year on
five countries that ended their bans on gays in the military. He did this study
when he was the senior research fellow at the Palm Center of the University of
California Santa Barbara.
Let's look at Israel, one of the other countries that you studied. Israel is
acknowledged to have a very strong military. Service is compulsory for men and
women. Was there a ban on gays in the military?
Mr. FRANK: Israel did limit service by gays and lesbians, but it limited it by
requiring a psychiatric evaluation, which would often trigger a discharge based
on some kind of euphemism, you know, that you were mentally unfit, or service
was inappropriate, or you were unsuitable.
In an earlier era, earlier in the 20th century, that was almost universal. By
the 1970s and '80s, that was more discretionary. So some people would be
discharged, and some people wouldn't.
In 1983, the ban was relaxed but also formalized in another way, and that often
happens. A lot of these countries, actually their bans were short-lived and
that they were ironically developed just as civilian laws and customs about
homosexuality were relaxing.
And so the military felt that since it could no longer rely on civilian laws to
root out gays, they would have to develop their own policies. And so some of
them were very short-lived.
Israel is a very instructive case because it is a combat-tested ally, although
there are important differences between Israel and the U.S. Such a small
country, people often go home at the end of the day. There is conscription.
It's not a volunteer force. There are men and women. And some of these
differences have been used by people to say that that case is not instructive.
And yet the fears were exactly the same.
The opposition to letting gays serve were the same. The language of mental
instability and unsuitability and concerns about intimacy and that sort of
thing were all very much the same, and ultimately, the research on Israel and
Britain and Canada and Australia and South Africa has been very uniform that
despite concerns in all of these countries, there have been no overall
So in other words, there would be isolated disruptions here or there, which are
equivalent to any other number of personnel conflicts, you know, individuals
not getting along, someone maybe asking for a transfer or something like that.
So it doesn't mean that all resistance evaporated, but at the level of unit
cohesion, at the level of recruitment and retention and readiness and battle
effectiveness, all of the criteria people use rightly to assess whether there
is harm caused by lifting a gay ban, there has been nothing. It's been
impossible to find an example of overall cohesion suffering from lifting a ban.
Again, it doesn't mean that there aren't people who resisted. In some cases,
the reinstatement of a gay person amidst media spotlights may have caused a
kind of ruckus, and some people say look, this is what happens when you let
gays serve. But of course, that's really something that happens when you make a
fight out of it in the first place. The fact of being gay or lesbian and
serving openly in these countries has caused no overall harm.
GROSS: You said that there really weren't any major problems in the five
countries that you studied when they ended their bans on gays and lesbians in
But it seems a little hard to imagine that the transition would be so smooth,
especially, like, when you consider when women started going to West Point.
There were stories about rape and unfair treatment and, you know, harassment,
all kinds of things that they had, that the women had to deal with. And
obviously, some of the men had a real hard time dealing with women.
So was there nothing comparable that you found in the five countries when gays
and lesbians could openly serve?
Mr. FRANK: Well, I understand the skepticism when you say that uniformly there
were no problems. And it's important to make clear that there were isolated
incidents of people grumbling, of interpersonal conflicts, of someone perhaps
requesting that they can change a room or a unit.
But I've been studying this for 10 years, and the military itself and
universities and government, Congressional Research Service, has also been
studying this for years. And it's one of the things that drew me to this policy
as a research topic was that the evidence is overwhelming, that there actually
have not been overall problems to cohesion, retention, recruitment and battle
effectiveness, and yet the culture and the political landscape continues to
retain the ban.
Now, I think some of what makes this different from women in combat or racial
integration is that you have to remember that gays have already been in the
military, in many cases even serving openly, notwithstanding the policy because
it's not enforced well, and it's unenforceable in some senses.
So this is unlike a situation where you have a new group show up at the door.
It's more about acknowledging something that most people know already exists.
And as far as harassment or something like that, there's already a level of
harassment against all kinds of people, gays and lesbians included, but it
makes sense that that harassment would actually be alleviated once you can talk
about this, once this comes aboveground. Because the ban on saying that you're
gay actually leads to further harassment because it doesn't allow people to
report it without worrying that they'll come under scrutiny.
So there are many unanticipated benefits of lifting a ban. In Canada, when
their ban was lifted, harassment against women went down by 60-some percent.
Now, we can't say that's all because of the ban being lifted because you don't
want to make that kind of correlation without knowing why it happened, but it's
suggestive of the fact that driving something like this underground actually
makes things worse, and when you simply say people can be open and honest, and
they can report harassment, it may make things better.
GROSS: So if you look at all five countries that you studied, so we're talking
about Canada, Britain, South Africa, Israel and Australia, things they have in
common include: Once the military decided or was forced to change, you know,
reverse its ban on gays in the military, they implemented the change swiftly.
And as far as you can tell, there weren't any problems, major problems, and
also there were no separate quarters, no separate facilities, no separate
policies for gays and lesbians.
Mr. FRANK: That's right, and it's not just as far as I can tell. I mean, so
many different sources have conducted research since the early 1990s, before,
during and after transitions: The Rand Corporation, which has again been hired
to do a study, as it did in 1993, for the Clinton-era effort to lift the ban.
And the Rand Corporation was...
GROSS: Hired by the military.
Mr. FRANK: Hired by the military, and the Rand Corporation was started by
military officers after World War II. So it has close ties to the military.
Brookings Institution, the Center for American Progress but also the military
itself, its own research arms, as well as the Government Accountability Office
and the Palm Center and other academic think tanks have all done studies to
assess - and now the Pentagon Working Group - what has happened in other
countries. And there simply is no evidence showing problems, and there's
overwhelming evidence showing that these transitions are a non-event and that
they can occur.
So the similarities are manifold, and they are that there were major concerns
about disruptions to effectiveness in recruitment and retention and that none
of them came true on any wide scale.
GROSS: One of the surprises in your chapter on Britain, a surprise to me, is
that the Royal Air Force created a relationship with the gay rights group
Stonewall. What was that relationship about?
Mr. FRANK: The military found that it was an employer of first resort to gay
and lesbian people, that there had been longstanding interest by gay and
lesbian people serving in the military. They had always been there and that
when the military does something - and this is a feature of military culture -
it does it wholeheartedly. And it found that it was a very appealing employer
and quickly made it on the - a list of gay rights groups' top 100 employers for
gay and lesbian people.
And so it capitalized on that, and it went to gay pride parades in London and
GROSS: The military did?
Mr. FRANK: The military did. You know, it took a few years, and it varied by
service branch. But the ban was lifted in 2000, and by 2006 and '07, the
military was having a presence at gay rights parades, gay pride parades, and
was liaisoning very deliberately with these groups.
And it's a recognition, I think, of how wholeheartedly the military really
embraced what it was doing, which was that equality was good for the military
and that it was a better command climate when you didn't have people snooping
and wondering about rumors and suspicions and when you said every team member
is going to excel because every team member is going to be treated as a team
And I think going out and saying, you know, we're not just doing this because
we were ordered to by a court, but we're doing this because we recognize that
this is actually good for the command climate, was part of what was happening
when they developed formal ties with gay rights groups in order to say we are
actually going to engage with the gay community in hopes that they will feel
100 percent welcome in the military.
GROSS: Nathaniel Frank will be back in the second half of the show. He was the
chief author of the report "Gays in Foreign Militaries 2010: A Global Primer,"
which was published by the Palm Center of the University of California Santa
Barbara. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Nathaniel Frank, the
author of a study of why and how five countries changed their policies to allow
gays and lesbians to openly serve in the military: Britain, Canada, Israel,
South Africa, and Australia. The study was published by the Palm Center of the
University of California, Santa Barbara, where Frank had been the senior
research fellow. He's also the author of a book about the impact of Don't Ask,
Don't Tell called "Unfriendly Fire."
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is now recommending that Congress repeal
Don't Ask, Don't Tell.
Now, what interested you most or surprised you most in America's Pentagon study
on gays in the military that was recently released?
Mr. FRANK: Well, in some ways the Pentagon's recent study has mirrored what
decades of other research into the question of gay service have said, which is
that openly gay service works and it works well. And so that wasn't surprising,
although I think people were heartened that the study was done with good faith
and done effectively and that it mirrored other academic research. I think what
was surprising is just how positive a climate it found in terms of openness to
openly gay service.
You know, this is a generation - younger people in the military - that has
passed out of the concerns of a lot of the older people who are running the
military at upper levels. And a lot of research has been saying that for a
while. But now the military has seen for itself and I think duly reflected that
evolution. So to see that 70 percent of service members think that lifting the
ban would be positive or neutral, but not - you know, or mixed but not
negative, that was quite something, and I think to see that in a very
comprehensive study, there was a lot of research reflected about how lifting a
gay ban is not just something that can be tolerated but can actually improve
command climate, which is what other countries found - I think that was, you
know, not something that I necessarily expected would be reflected in the
GROSS: Now, you've pointed out in your study that most of the five countries
that you studied changed their ban - ended their ban on gays in the military
because there were court cases that were going to force them to change or that
did force them to change.
There's a case that's making its way through the courts now filed by the Log
Cabin Republicans, and they're saying there should be gays in the military who
can serve openly. It's now in appeals and a federal court is going to hear the
appeal probably in February.
How do you compare that case to the cases in the five countries? You know, in
the countries that you studied?
Mr. FRANK: Well, I think the case is similar and the history is similar, in
that a court case emerges that shows that the culture has come a certain
distance from the past where a court case wouldn't have even made its way this
far. One of the differences, though, is that we have a Don't Ask, Don't Tell
policy, which is that there are already gay people in the military. And, of
course, in these other countries there were too, but it wasn't formally
acknowledged the way it is under Don't Ask, Don't Tell.
But I do think that the court cases have always pressured - created pressure
towards ending these policies because, you know, the Pentagon doesn't want to
deal with the uncertainty of and the possibility of a judge imposing this
overnight, and that is, in fact, exactly what happened in the last few months,
is that a single federal judge at the district level imposed a worldwide
injunction. There was some wrangling over whether she even had the authority to
do that, but eventually the Pentagon accepted that she did and for eight days
there was no ban. And you had military officials saying, you know, grumbling
about the court case and saying this could create enormous consequences. And
yet you have the evidence of at least a week of no ban without any
So that is also a political concern, that leaders who are trying to make this a
gradual progress, either because of their own resistance or because they want
to generate buy-in by all the stakeholders in the military, they would rather
control this themselves, and that's what the current legislation in the U.S.
Congress does, is it doesn't repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell immediately. It gets
repeal past Congress as a hurdle, which it's been for 17 years, and puts it in
the hands of the secretary of defense, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of
Staff and the president, to say we are now ready when they're ready, when
they've been satisfied that all the preparations are in place to end the ban.
GROSS: On the other hand, the commander of the Marine Corps and the chiefs of
staff of the Army and the Air Force told the - said last week that this isn't
the time to change the policy because we're fighting a war. So there still is
resistance at a high leadership level within the armed services.
Mr. FRANK: There's certainly divided opinion, although if you actually look at
what, for instance, the Air Force chief said in terms of this political moment,
he said he would like to delay repeal for another year or so, but he does think
the legislation should move forward so that the military has the control over
But again, when you look at the evidence, you look at the research, you look at
what the courts have said and now look at what the military has said, it
becomes harder and harder in court to defend the existing policy. It becomes
harder and harder to say this policy had or has a rational basis when all of
the research, including the military's own research and many of its top
leaders, though not all, are saying this policy is compromising our
effectiveness, our integrity and our talent pool, and so even the courts'
tradition of deferring to the military is now thrown into question.
GROSS: In conflicts that the American military has been involved with lately,
there have been multinational forces, forces from NATO countries, from other
countries. There was, you know, President Bush's Coalition of the Willing, in
which American troops served alongside troops from all over the world. Now,
many of the armies that the United States has served alongside with have
policies that allow gays to serve. What has been the outcome of that? Have
there been any conflicts there, serving with militaries that have openly gay
Mr. FRANK: Well, there certainly has been no evidence that these multinational
forces that do include openly gay people have become problems at the overall
level. You know, you can't say that no one has complained or that there haven't
been interpersonal conflicts. But the research I've done and research others
have done have looked into those cases, not just the policy on paper that
allows openly gay service, but speaking to, interviewing people who have been
openly gay, there have - have been - there's been an increase in the number of
joint military operations in the past few decades and there are absolutely
openly gay service members from other countries serving alongside, and in some
cases commanding, U.S. troops in the Middle East, in Sinai, in, you know,
Ethiopia, Lebanon, as well as in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. There are
documented evidence of openly gay British commanders commanding U.S. troops on
ships for a period of time where it was known that these people were gay and
there were no issues. And so I think that's more evidence that openly gay
service works without causing overall disruptions.
GROSS: Well, Nathaniel Frank, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. FRANK: Thank you for having me.
GROSS: Nathaniel Frank is the chief author of the report "Gays in Foreign
Militaries 2010: A Global Primer," which was published by the Palm Center of
the University of California, Santa Barbara.
You can find a link to the report and read an excerpt of Frank's book,
"Unfriendly Fire," about the impact of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, on our website,
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Filmmaker Hamilton 'Catches' Up With Ex-Panthers
TERRY GROSS, host:
My guest Tanya Hamilton is the writer and director of the new independent film
"Night Catches Us." It's nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for Best
Set in 1976, it's about a group of people in a Philadelphia neighborhood who
had been members of the militant group the Black Panthers. While some are
trying to settle scores from the past, others are trying to move on with their
lives. Tensions between the community and the police remain high. Kerry
Washington plays a former Panther whose husband, Neil, was killed by the
police. Her husband's best friend, Marcus, is the man the Panthers blamed for
snitching to the police and getting Neil killed. Marcus moved out of the city
but has returned for his father's funeral. Marcus is played by Anthony Mackie,
who co-starred in "The Hurt Locker."
New York Times film critic A.O. Scott described "Night Catches Us" as a
politically sophisticated and ethically serious film that touches deep
reservoirs of anger but is impelled more by sorrow and the desire for wisdom.
Filmmaker Tanya Hamilton was born in Jamaica and moved to the U.S. with her
mother when she was eight. Here's a scene from the film in which Kerry
Washington's character, Patricia, is trying to explain to her eight-year-old
daughter how her father Neil was killed.
(Soundbite of movie, "Night Catches Us")
Ms. KERRY WASHINGTON (Actor): (as Patricia) The year you were born, two
Panthers were killed by the police, and your father was outraged. So he and
some other Panther members, they decided they were going to kill a police
officer. And I tried to convince him not to, we all did - Marcus and Uncle
DoRight - but he wouldn't listen.
Ms. JAMARA WILSON (Actor): (as Iris) Did he do it?
Ms. WASHINGTON: (as Patricia) But that's not who we were. That's not what we
did. Your father became angry, disillusioned maybe. You were eight months old
and nobody was safe. I didn't know how I was going to keep this family
together. The night they caught (unintelligible) we were taking you to my
GROSS: Tanya Hamilton, welcome to FRESH AIR.
Ms. TANYA HAMILTON (Writer, Director, "Night Catches Us"): Thank you.
GROSS: Your movie, "Night Catches Us," is in part about the afterlife of
radical activism, the impact of that on the characters a few years after. And
the Kerry Washington character is a lawyer, and her goal is to help the people
in the neighborhood, to bail them out when they need it, to defend them when
they need it. But her cousin, Jimmy, he's 18. He grew up seeing the Panthers
but he was too young to be part of them, and he idolizes the whole idea of it.
He loves the clothes they wore, the leather jackets, the beret, the fist
salute, the guns. But he's totally not cognizant of the politics. So all he
wants to do is be nasty to the cops.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: And without really understanding the kind of political struggle and the
social issues that created the Black Panthers, that the Panthers stood for.
Why were you interested in creating that character?
Ms. HAMILTON: I saw this film on a couple different levels. Like I, you know, I
felt like it needed to talk not only kind of about the waning days, but about
sort of what ultimately destroyed the Panthers and the complexity of that
destruction. So like there's what we know, which is that, you know, the
government goes after them and sort of squeezes really hard until they pop. But
I also felt like there was a, something about the community that was culpable
as well. You know, as uncomfortable as that feels, I wanted to be able to talk
And I felt that Jimmy represented a couple things: one, I thought he sort of
represented a lot of the kids I went to high school with in the '80s. You know,
like I went to high school in D.C. and that, you know, at the time it was the
murder capital basically of the U.S., and I knew a lot of people who died over
just nonsense. And I thought, well, what's the great sadness of the demise of
something like the Panthers, which is essentially at its core, at its most
beautiful place, a grassroots organization that's inside of a community whose
objective ultimately is to bolster that community and to help it grow and to
live? And I think that that, the result is what you get in the '80s, which is
kids who kind of in a way are wayward a little bit, are wayward emotionally,
don't have a place to kind of be grounded, and then I think you see the certain
kind of destruction that happens. And I think that Jimmy, his character is
someone who borrows somebody else's history without really fully understanding
where it comes from and how it's been fought for.
GROSS: But he seems to like the pose most of all.
Ms. HAMILTON: Yeah, I mean...
GROSS: The pose and the idea of like confrontation.
Ms. HAMILTON: Yeah. Yeah. I thought about him as like this guy who would have
been, you know, like nine or 10 when they were around, which is young enough, I
think, to kind of have something make an indelible mark on your soul, but not
old enough, I think, to really recognize all the minutia. You know, it's sort
of like they...
GROSS: Well, not the minutia, like the main...
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: ...the main event part, really.
Ms. HAMILTON: It's true. Although, I will say that I think that they were such
GROSS: Uh-huh. Mmm.
Ms. HAMILTON: ...that that actually is the thing, that, I felt like Jimmy's
kind of like us a little bit. It's sort of like what we remember about them is
sort of like sexy black men with guns. But it really was in the minutia of what
made them special. It was the small things that they thought of, the breakfast
programs which, of course, are big. But you know what I mean? It's the stuff;
it's the work, that's what made them special. And then the fashionista stuff
was the stuff that made them gorgeously extraordinary. You know, they were able
to kind of work it.
GROSS: When were you first exposed to the politics, the rhetoric, the more
romantic, as you put it, fashionista part of the Panther period?
Ms. HAMILTON: I was a painter for a long time, all through high school and all
through college and I was always a big fan of the, this guy Emory Douglas, who
was the Black Panthers party's minister of culture and he was their artist. You
see his stuff everywhere - the rays of light. I mean people like Shepard
Fairey; I mean all of those people were very influenced ultimately by this guy.
And so we use Emory Douglas's work in the film. It's all throughout the opening
of the film and then we use little pieces kind of throughout, you know, kind of
the body of the movie and...
GROSS: They're paintings or drawings?
Ms. HAMILTON: They're just these massive illustrations. He...
GROSS: Of Black Panthers.
Ms. HAMILTON: Of Black Panthers. He was their propagandist and I think he
borrowed heavily from the Chinese and from the Cubans and, you know...
GROSS: That kind of social realist style?
Ms. HAMILTON: Yeah. It was very, you know, it had a Diego Rivera, you know,
sort of the W...
GROSS: The working man?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. HAMILTON: Exactly. Like WPA kind of, you know, the potato eating, you know,
working class and beautiful. Like the colors, you know, the beat of that
GROSS: One of the issues confronted in the film is whether to stay or leave the
neighborhood. Both Kerry Washington's character and Anthony Mackie's character
are former Black Panthers. Kerry Washington wants to stay in the neighborhood
and help the people there with her legal skills because she's a lawyer, bail
them out, defend them, feed the children who don't have enough food, so she's
like a professional and a community provider and activist.
The Anthony Mackie character was basically driven out of the neighborhood
because he's been accused of being a snitch and he wants to stay out of the
neighborhood and make a better life for himself. And it's an interesting
division that you are working with there about how to respond to a neighborhood
that has its problems, that has violence, has a history of confrontation with
the police, have been confrontational with them and vice versa.
Ms. HAMILTON: What I liked about Philadelphia is that it is sort of the city of
all of these neighborhoods and that is the great beauty of this town. I thought
that in the pure essence of the Panthers that they were about community and
they were all about how do I kind of make my community strong.
What I find interesting is that despite the breakup of the group however many
years ago, that all of the people that I've met who were part of the party -
and again, I'm 42 years old, but I wasn't a part of the Panthers. I'm from
Jamaica, like, you know, but they all had this obsession with where they live.
And they all do things like, you know, whether it's their part of community
groups or there's a, you know, there's a guy named Jamal Joseph in New York who
was one of the Panther 21. He was what, I think the youngest member to become a
part of the leadership of the party that he joined when he was 15 maybe.
You know, he's got this group of kids. I was there a couple of weeks ago -
called - I think they're called Impact. And he trains these kids to sing and to
dance and there's just like these working kids, you know, from the
Jamie Hector, who is one of the actors from "The Wire" who is in this film, he
plays DoRight, is sort of similar. It's really interesting that he has this you
know, kind of community organization out in Brooklyn where he teaches these
kids how to act. I mean I, there's, I really admire that. And I think that
people who are drawn to organizations like the Panthers they all have this
great desire to make the place where they live and where their kids are going
to live a lot better.
GROSS: "Night Catches Us" is shot in Germantown, a neighborhood in
Philadelphia. It looks very '70s. It's set in 1976 and it looks it. How did you
find locations that would look '70s enough?
Ms. HAMILTON: Wow. My sense is that Philly hasn't changed all that much since
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. HAMILTON: The producers wanted to move the film out of Philly to New York
at a certain point because it was just going to be cheaper for their tax credit
etcetera, etcetera, and myself and one other producer really just fought very
hard to keep it here. And I think in part because I had lived here for
whatever, eight years, nine years at that point. And I was like this is the
perfect town. Germantown is this magical place and it hasn't changed for a
really long time, for the good in some places and for the tremendous bad in
So we just kind of drove around and we just kind of point at the blocks that
made sense for us. And, you know, we had to deal with street signs and stuff
like that that we, you know, there's some cell phone towers if you look very
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. HAMILTON: ...you know, that we couldn't get rid of because we - our budget
was really tiny.
GROSS: My guest is Tanya Hamilton, the writer and director of the new film
"Night Catches Us." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest, Tanya Hamilton, wrote and directed the new film "Night Catches
Us," about a group of former Black Panthers in 1976.
You use a lot of still photographs, some documentary footage of the Panthers. I
guess I'm interested in if there's any of the real images that you used that
were particularly intriguing or powerful for you.
Part of what the Panthers did, like some other radical groups of the '60s and
'70s, is really bring a knowing sense of theater to what they were doing
through what they wore, through the poses that they used for photographs and
for posters. Like the Yippies used theater, the Panthers used theater. I don't
mean staged theater. I just mean...
Ms. HAMILTON: Yeah.
GROSS: Was any of that imagery particularly powerful for you looking at it?
Ms. HAMILTON: I mean I think all of it was. I mean, you know, there's some
stuff of Fred Hampton that I thought was just beautiful, of him talking. I
think we slowed it down in the film but it's just of him on a podium talking.
Fred Hampton is, he was from the Chicago chapter of the Panthers and he was
murdered by Chicago police in his bed and he was very young. I mean I want to
say maybe 21, 22, something like that. And I think a lot of people really
thought that he was going to be the, kind of replace Newton in a way. And Huey
Newton, who was the head of - one of the co-founders of the Panthers because he
was so eloquent and so farseeing in a way and he was a great community
And, but I, you know, there are some images of, from a documentary about him
that I really loved. And there's some imagery of these guys kind of sitting
around with like a gun. You know, they're loading their guns and it's maybe
they're five or six of them in a room.
And, you know, I will say one thing, there was one piece that I love so much,
and it's a shot of the Panthers at, I believe it's Fred Hampton's funeral and
we use it in the film. It's a panning shot across all of their faces. They are
in their berets and they have suits on and they have I think like a white
flower, and it's just this panning shot of them and it's so heartbreaking in a
way. They look almost like they have been really defeated, you know, really
kind of broken. And I wanted to use that shot.
And I remember we couldn't find like who owned it and it was like this big
search and I just it was a sigh of relief when we finally figured out who it
was and that we could license it because I just really felt like it was a, you
know, it was this metaphor in a way of this punishing kind of squeeze that they
go through. And then in the end you realize is that so many of them are just
actually kids, 21, 23, 25, you know, just - it's a beautiful piece of footage.
GROSS: Since two of the actors in your movie were in "The Wire," Jamie Hector
who played Marlo Stanfield, the really crazy drug dealer, and Wendell Pierce
who played Bunk, a cop. I couldn't help but wonder if you had worked on "The
Wire" at all. I know you, you...
Ms. HAMILTON: No.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. HAMILTON: But I'm a devotee. I love "The Wire." I mean I think it's - I
felt like it really, in an interesting way - like I was with Jamie Hector
yesterday in New York City to do something and walking down the street with
that guy, you're stopped, you know, sort of every like quarter of a block.
GROSS: People recognize him?
Ms. HAMILTON: People recognize him.
GROSS: What do they say to him when they stopped him because really, his
character is like a sociopath. He's crazy.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. HAMILTON: Yeah. Yeah. In a very calm way.
GROSS: In a very calm - yeah. But his eyes, his eyes are really...
Ms. HAMILTON: Yeah.
GROSS: You can tell in his eyes he's crazy.
Ms. HAMILTON: It's interesting because Jamie Hector is the opposite of that
character, which sounds cliche, but it's actually very true. He's an extremely
sweet person. He's not insane.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. HAMILTON: You know, so it's funny in a way to kind of see these two
personas. And people would be like, Marlo, you know, like from like across the
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. HAMILTON: And then he's so kind. You know, he'll stop and like, you know,
and they'll come up to him and the conversation is in this, you know, it's not
who are you and hi. It's generally, you know, at least from my experience
yesterday and a couple of other times, it's Marlo. It's having this discussion
as though they are speaking to Marlo, which I - you know, you hear that.
Nobody's delusional, like they know it's an actor and yet I think that there's
such a connection to that character.
GROSS: Your movie is called "Night Catches Us." It sounds like it's a quote
from a poem or something. No one says that line in the movie and I'd really
like to know where the title comes from.
Ms. HAMILTON: Well, in Jamaica there's a saying. You know, my grandmother might
say if I'm going out, don't let night catch you. And that simply means come
back at a decent hour. You don't want to stay out. I mean it's a very literal
kind of thing, Jamaican patois. And it just really means you don't want to stay
out until night catches up to you.
When we were searching for a title, and this film had a different title for a
very long time, and as the movie evolved and the Marcus character became much
more of the focus of the film, because it used to really be about the kid, I
felt like the title that we had previously was far too sweet. So we started
searching for a new one.
And I felt like the film is about these people who are all running in these
various directions and I felt like there was something nicely noir-ish about
night catches us, and that it spoke in a way, if you kind of want to just kind
of dissect it, of their history and was it going to catch up to them, and were
they going to have to contend with it? And, you know, the night sort of in a
way being the metaphor of one's past and how, you know, no matter what, it was
going to kind of run them over and they were going to have to eventually kind
of deal with what they were holding back. So, yeah, and it wasn't my idea,
actually. It was my husband's.
GROSS: Oh. Well, good for him.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Tanya Hamilton, thank you very much and good luck with the movie.
Ms. HAMILTON: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
GROSS: Tanya Hamilton wrote and directed the new film "Night Catches Us." You
can see clips on our website, freshair.npr.org.
I'm Terry Gross.
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