Last week, I reviewed The Man Who Fell to Earth, a movie that I would describe as competently made but dated in its style and themes. I was hoping to pull away from that in the second part of this Science Fiction Double Feature, and I felt compelled to finally watch The Brother from Another Planet, directed by John Sayles, whose Men with Guns (or Hombres armados) (1997) is an engaging political film set in an unnamed South American country that is being ravaged by United States fruit companies. How does this movie stock up in comparison to The Man Who Fell to Earth and Men with Guns, though?
A-Movie: The Brother from Another Planet (1984)
Plot: The Brother (Joe Morton), who is mute, arrives on Earth after escaping enslavement on another planet. He finds himself in Harlem and attempts to make his way through the city.
As you might expect, there’s a lot of potential for political commentary here, and the title, if I’m not misreading it, references the titles of blaxploitation films like Super Fly. Now, I’m not at all super savvy on that genre, but based on what I’ve read and what I saw in Super Fly, those movies are incredibly (not to mention intelliegently) political despite people’s tendency to write them off based on the stylization. Brother from Another Planet is certainly a part of that dialogue, and while I’m sure there’s something problematic about the writer/director being white, the impression I get is that this is a very deft handling of racial politics.
As soon as the film opens, we get a taste of the approach Sayles is taking to not only race but immigration: the Brother arrives in an abandoned Ellis Island, unable to utter a sound, with an apparently psychic ability that allows him to “hear” the past of objects by touching them, including the voices of those from long ago who have also interacted with them. Muted protagonists are powerful because, in this context (see also: The Piano (1993)), they can represent the silencing of oppressed groups by society. The Brother has extremely high emotional intelligence to the point of being psychic, and understands people, but cannot communicate with them. Sayles adds dimension to this solid concept by having myriad people interact with him differently.
The Brother goes to Harlem quite quickly after his arrival, and the first location we spend more than five minutes in is a bar. The people there are confused by his presence, and one even diagnoses him as crazy, but in general they’re incredibly accepting of him. They don’t kick him out, but instead—upon realizing some of his talents, such as an ability to fix machines by touching them—help him and find him work. There’s a really strong sense of community, in fact, and this is a pleasant turn on the depiction of 1980s Harlem as a ghetto. For a solid, quick write-up on that matter, check out this piece by Walidah Imarisha. As Imarisha points out, the men in the bar—who are black, as the Brother appears to be—defend him against a group of two “Men in Black” despite knowing almost nothing about him.
This is in stark contrast to other people that he interacts with, namely those who are white. Two kind of dorky kids who get lost in Harlem sit down at the bar and drunkenly chat with him for apparently a long time; the film cuts to the end of that day, and they’ve apparently had several revelations about race and how to fix racial problems by talking to the Brother, who hasn’t said a word. Earlier, when he’s staying with a woman and her kid—the woman being white—she tells him that she feels like she’s “a slave” and “from another planet,” not realizing that he is actually both of those. These folks are usually projecting onto him rather than allowing him to exist as is, which is a stark contrast to the community seen in the bar.
That’s not to say that this movie takes a simplified approach divided along racial lines; it’s a lot more complicated than that. It simply portrays some truths about human interaction as seen through someone who is literally an alien, which has often stood in for “the other.” The sets of interactions portray experiences of someone who enters an unfamiliar society, and those that push back against it—or those that attempt to return those that have escaped an oppressive society to it. Tellingly, the Brother escapes the Men in Black through the community that has accepted him. Harlem isn’t portrayed as a perfect place—the Brother guts mugged and sliced at one point—but it’s certainly captured with nuance and an eye for the way groups within that community fought against the difficulties that it faced.
That, to me, is a great way to use science fiction: taking aspects of certain people’s lives and drawing them to an extreme—the immigrant as an alien to the entire planet; a silenced person as someone who physically cannot speak—in order to reveal aspects of reality. More importantly, and in contrast to The Man Who Fell to Earth—this message is nuanced and full of perspectives. Sayles is a political filmmaker, but also an incredibly intelligent one.
And while Sayles’ writing and direction is incredibly deft, there’s also a lot to be said about the performances. Each character feels incredibly human, and Morton in particular makes his role full of quiet emotion, without which this movie would have dragged terribly. He recognizes the small bursts of humor in all the commentary and capitalizes on the Brother’s characterization as both human and not.
The Brother from Another Planet is an all-around fascinating film, one situated in the political climate of the time but also incredibly relevant today. Oddly, by being more tied down to a specific time period in terms of setting, it is more timeless than The Man Who Fell to Earth, because it utilizes the setting to make commentary that remains a part of numerous discourses concerning race, economics, and politics. I might not usually enjoy political film, but Sayles finds a way to make the story about humanity as seen through politics, and for that, I have to applaud his work.