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The Brother From Another Planet (1984)

May 5th, 2007 · No Comments

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A UFO crashes near the Statue of Liberty. The pilot (Joe Morton) wanders through what’s left of the immigrant processing terminal on Ellis Island. When he touches the building, he’s able to hear anxious voices from the past. Able to understand people, but not speak, he makes his way down 125th Street in Harlem, encountering a Korean grocery store and the NYPD.

The Brother finds refuge in a bar. The barkeep (Steve James) and his regulars (Bill Cobbs, Leonard Jackson, Daryl Edwards) debate whether the mute stranger has “internal malfunctions,” is a wino, or a fugitive from a chain gang. The Brother doesn’t hassle anybody, and the men come to accept him like any other immigrant.

The stranger repairs a malfunctioning arcade game by just touching it, and when a man who works for the city drops in, the others implore him to help the Brother out. The man obtains room and board for the new arrival, and finds him a job repairing broken arcade games. With some new clothes and some cash, the Brother assimilates into society.

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Two weird white men in black (John Sayles, David Strathairn) show up in Harlem, looking for the Brother. He discovers some flyers for a nightclub singer and goes to see her perform, and his mute nature proves quite the allure. While dodging the men in black, the Brother discovers a dead junkie, and tries to find and punish the people who brought the drugs that killed him into the community.

In 1983, writer-director-editor John Sayles was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship – the “genius grants” – given to individuals in fields ranging from science to music to art. Sayles received $33,000 a year paid out over five years, but the grants are unique in that the recipients don’t have to report how they spent the money. They’re free to reflect and create whatever they want to.

The windfall helped Sayles continue to finance movies outside the studio system, and one of the first he made was this one. Shot in Harlem over a four-week period on a $400,000 budget, the film is as far from E.T. as you can get. The special effects consist of construction paper with pin holes to resemble stars. The cast is also absent of stars, just a couple of now familiar faces and terrific acting.

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The Brother From Another Planet is one of those movies you catch on IFC, aren’t sure you read the title right, and end up watching to the end. It’s flawed, but among other things, is a superior entry in the “stranger in a strange land” genre, like Splash or Big without the laughs. Because he’s mute, the Brother never has to explain himself. We merely watch as he tries to understand the world and assimilate into it.

Sayles’ script features some of the best writing he’s done. The bar scenes contain impeccably timed dialogue of wit, dignity and pathos. Fisher Stevens pops up halfway through the film playing a kid who entertains the Brother with a brilliant card trick story on the subway. As for the casting, there’s not a single performance in the film that’s not good.

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The last 30 minutes of the picture, with the Brother trying to stamp out drugs, aren’t very good. It’s as if Sayles only had 70 decent script pages, but had to start shooting while financing was available. But the sound effects and music – featuring the sounds of the steel drum – are terrific, and along with Joe Morton’s great performance, a sense of innocent wonder pervades the film.

This was the first 35mm feature lit by Ernest Dickerson, who went on to serve as director of photography on Spike Lee’s first five films. It was made before Lee or John Singleton had gotten behind a camera, and due to the faces on the screen, it’s difficult to see The Brother being financed by Hollywood. For fans of independent film, I highly recommend this.

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Tags: Cult favorite · Train

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