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The Brother from Another Planet

"Blaxploitation" earned popular attention in 1970 and 1971 with films like Cotton Comes to Harlem, Sweet Sweetback's Baaaadasss Song, and Shaft, and the genre thrived during the first half of the decade until coming to a sudden and untimely end by 1979. It was a death brought about by several factors, not the least of which was the fact that very few films were produced outside the action/crime paradigm of movies like Black Caesar or The Mack. It's widely believed that producers and studios simply were unwilling to explore more complex aspects of the "black experience" in America for fear of losing audience interest, but that isn't accurate. Blaxploitation didn't die so much as it went into a coma, only to emerge as something else in the '80s. One of the important things that blaxploitation did was prove that there was an audience for films with black characters and black subject matter, which would lead to the eventual rise of filmmakers like Spike Lee and John Singleton. But before Lee's She's Gotta Have It took black cinema and black characters into a new direction in 1986, a handful of films came along in first half of the decade that would have a profound impact. One of these films is writer/director/editor John Sayles' seminal The Brother from Another Planet (1984). Joe Morton stars as The Brother, a mute extra-terrestrial who crash-lands on New York's Ellis Island. With the exception of his three-toed feet, the alien looks just like a human being of African descent. Although he can't talk, he possesses a sort of telepathy that allows him to understand the meaning of what people are saying, even if he doesn't totally understand the language they're speaking. In addition to his heightened mental abilities, The Brother also can pick up on the emotional resonance in a place — it's an ability that overpowers him on Ellis Island, where the rich emotional history leaves him silently screaming in agony. It isn't long before The Brother makes his way to Harlem, where he quickly blends in with the regulars at a local bar. Despite his inability to communicate, the barflies take him under their wing, and help him get a job repairing video games (The Brother has a magical touch that can fix broken electronics and heal injuries). But trouble soon comes calling when two Men in Black (Sayles and David Strathairn) come looking for The Brother, who it turns out is an escaped slave from another galaxy.

*          *          *

The Brother from Another Planet is one of those rare films that gets better with age. In an era of science fiction movies that are fueled by elaborate special effects, the low-budget effects of Brother seem antiquated and hokey. But what the film lacks in effects it makes up for in story and character. This is a character-driven tale that depends solely on the ability of Joe Morton to communicate non-verbally. Morton manages to carry the picture without uttering a single sound, and by playing things with a physical subtlety rather than over-the-top slapstick schtick. His performance also is aided by the supporting characters that react to him, especially the denizens of the bar, which include Leonard Jackson, Bill Cobbs, and the late, great Steve James. It seems ironic that a white man from Schenectady, N.Y., would be able to craft such a profound examination of the black experience in America. But John Sayles, the auteur responsible for such films as The Return of the Seacacus Seven and Lone Star, always has had a gift for crafting well-developed characters. The Brother from Another Planet is no exception, and the movie offers some of Sayles' most memorable characters. Although it's not really a blaxploitation film, it (along with Norman Jewison's Soldier's Story) is exactly where the genre would have gone had it been given the chance to grow. The Brother from Another Planet is finally getting the treatment is deserves. After years of only being available on washed-out videotapes and a poor DVD release by Good Times, MGM's disc features an anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) of a restored print, which probably hasn't looked this good since its release in '84. The disc also includes a brief documentary featurette that's not much to get excited over, and an audio commentary by Sayles. The director talks at length about what he was trying to convey and the themes he was exploring. It is an interesting commentary for anyone well versed in the film, reinforcing what Sayles so deftly put on the screen. At the same time, it almost seems unnecessary — if you don't get what the director is saying about things like racism, immigration, and assimilation, then you probably lack the facility to appreciate the film anyway. Keep-case.
—David Walker

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