The Brother from Another Planet is the latest low-budget triumph for writer-director John Sayles, the man who brought us The Return of the Secaucus Seven, that delightful arthouse hit of a couple of years ago.
Sayles is still making films his own way. For years now he’s been writing scripts for exploitation films—smart little horror movies such as Piranha and Alligator—and using the money to shoot his own films. That’s exactly how he made Secaucus and Lianna.
After an unsatisfactory experience with a major studio production (Baby, It’s You), Sayles has gone back to his home-grown brand of cinema. This time out it’s a wonderfully inventive sci-fi comedy drama, with broader commercial possibilities than his previous efforts.
The title gives the basic idea. The brother from another planet is an alien, looking for all the world like a black human (except for his three toes). This alien, who remains wordless throughout and who undergoes all the shocks of encountering a new civilization, is played by Joe Morton, an actor best known for his role on a soap opera called—appropriately enough—Another World.
His spaceship crashes at the Statue of Liberty. As it turns out, this is fitting, because he’s refugee from his planet, on which exists some sort of slave society. In fact, he’s pursued to Earth by some mysterious men in black (played by David Strathairn and Sayles himself), whose knowledge of English is limited to what they have gleaned from the movies.
The brother finds his way to Harlem, and stops by a bar where some regulars sit sipping their drinks. The scenes in this bar represent Sayles’s dialogue at its best: lines overlap and feed off each other as the men try to figure out where the brother came from. Eventually, they find him a place to stay and a job at a video arcade (they notice that he has an uncanny power to fix video games—which he does just by placing his hand on the afflicted machine).
In the course of the brother’s travels, we listen always to what other people say to him. Because he’s speechless, the film becomes a little tapestry of Harlem, with the eccentric characters lighting up each of the vignettes.
Sayles keeps the proceedings light and funny until the midway point, when the brother encounters the world of drugs and the darker side of Harlem. Sayles is so talented with comedy, and it seems to come so naturally to him, that he could well have made a wholly comic film. But he’s obviously interested in getting at something deeper, and the shift in tone works well here.
Indeed, Sayles proves himself quite adept at balancing the suspense of the drug-dealing story, the comedy of the guys at the bar, the tenderness of the brother’s romantic encounter with a nightclub singer (Dee Dee Bridgewater), and the analogy between the brother’s flight from slavery and the Underground Railroad of the Civil War, which is referred to during the film (Harriet Tubman had the Underground Railroad, and so does the brother: but today it’s the subway A Train, heading downtown).
All in all, it’s a satisfying outing for Sayles and company—made even more remarkable when you realize they shot the thing in a month. But even if you didn’t know that, The Brother is good enough to impress anybody; even those who, in the wake of the similarly plotted E.T. and Starman, have had their fill of movies about extraterrestrials.
First published in the Herald, September 1984
It’s a neat movie. Sayles still seems embarrassed about his ability to write comic scenes, as though he had more important things on his mind, but in this one he lets his dialogue-writing demon out to play.