A mute black man from outer space (Joe Morton, Terminator 2: Judgement Day) crash lands his spaceship into the Hudson River, New York, and somehow ends up in Harlem. “The Brother” from another planet tries to make sense of this strange new environment as he is pursued by rival aliens who want to enslave him.
Reaction & Thoughts:
“White folks get stranger all the time.”
Written and directed by John Sayles (Eight Men Out and Matewan) on a shoestring budget, The Brother from Another Planet is an incisive, perceptive, intelligent social satire with a sublime central performance. Sayles’s main target is alienation (no pun intended) in urban life, but the filmmaker doesn’t stop there.
Sayles adds another layer to the story by placing the confused alien in the midst of Harlem, which is by all accounts a marginalized community. The immediate effect is quite powerful; it is as if he had placed a mirror in front of a mirror. Sayles touches upon everything from xenophobia and social inequality to racial stereotypes and gender bias. Sayles doesn’t mock anyone; he’s simply pointing out society’s ills.
The Brother from Another Planet is constructed as a series of vignettes. Segments operate independently towards a common goal. Everything is done in tongue-in-cheek fashion. Comedy is always a great vehicle to shed light on serious issues. Sayles understands that humor tends to bring our defenses down, which is what needs to happen in order for any of us to accept the ugly truths behind an unjust economic system — we nervously giggle because we recognize the absurdities of our lives.
Joe Norton’s superbly controlled performance is the element that ties everything together. Because his character is mute, Norton has to rely on his eyes to convey all sorts of complex emotions. And he does exactly that with grace and intelligence — Norton projects curiosity and bewilderment without ever resorting to obvious mannerisms. He is like an African-American version of Buster Keaton!
The supporting cast is great too. Daryl Edwards (City of Hope) steals a few scenes as “Fly.” Leonard Jackson (The Color Purple) plays “Smokey.” Director Sayles and David Strathairn (Good Night, and Good Luck) are hilarious as the “Men in Black,” two rival aliens who want to kill the title character for unknown reasons. Look closely for Giancarlo Esposito (Do the Right Thing) in one of his first movie roles.
Conclusions & Final Thoughts:
The Brother from Another Planet is a sort of throwback to the Preston Sturges comedies of yesterday. The movie works both as an absurdist metaphor of urban life and as a study of immigrant experience. Like Preston’s best movies, this film manages to say something important about human nature and society. It’s quite funny, too. The humor is subtle, but clever. Made for only $350,000, this B-movie is proof that you don’t need much money to make a good movie. Color, 105 minutes, Rated R.