The Brother from Another Planet
Normally when I think of a John Sayles film my mind immediately goes to his stirring character dramas such as Passion Fish, Lone Star, Eight Men Out, Limbo and Casa de los Babys. The latter of which I had the pleasure of seeing at TIFF a few years back. Sayles and the bulk of his female cast who were in attendance at the Q & A displayed a level of intelligence and witty humour that has become common place in a large number of his films.
Despite being familiar with a number of his works, nothing could prepare me for the wonderfully unique comedy that is found in his 1984 film, The Brother from Another Planet. The film follows an alien, “The Brother” (Joe Morton), who crashes on earth while trying to evade the Men in Black (David Strathairn and John Sayles), who are intergalactic bounty hunters commissioned to re-captured escaped slaves. Looking like an average African-American male, minus his oversize feet which he keeps hidden, The Brother is sent to live in Harlem by social services. While in Harlem, The Brother, who has telekinetic powers but is unable to speak, spends his days observing the daily life of the citizens who inhabit the borough; and discovers that his skin tone has major disadvantages on this new planet.
The Brother from Another Planet is a rather deceptive comedy. On the surface it is an amusing comedy that is revels in the silliness of its premise. However, as the film progresses it becomes clear that The Brother from Another Planet is a rather biting social commentary. There are numerous comedic scenes in which the racial divide is apparent to everyone except for The Brother. In one brilliant sequence, The Brother meets a man on the train who wants to show him a few “magic tricks.” The last trick perfectly encapsulates how some non-African Americans view Harlem.
One of the reasons scenes like this work so well is partly due to Joe Morton’s performance. Known more for his supporting roles in films, such as Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Speed, Morton is fantastic as the lead. Despite not having a single line, Morton’s physical performance really is the glue that keeps the film together. He effortlessly moves through the gambit of emotions from innocence to fear to confusion to sadness without ever losing the overall tone of the film.
The overall oddness of The Brother from Another Planet may put some people off, but it is a film that you should not give up on based on the first twenty minutes. The film is an enjoyable ride that has a lot to offer. It tackles issues such as racism and the difference between social classes in an easily digestible and entertaining way.
The Brother from Another Planet is part of our The Must See List series.