I have probably seen John Sayles’ The Brother From Another Planet (1984) almost a dozen times. I first saw it when I was in high school, bored, flipping through our cable channels. I was skeptical at first, given the low budget special effects, but the film quickly sucked me in. Last year I taught in a college course my co-instructor and I put together called Race and Gender in Science Fiction Film. Through all my viewings, that was my first experience watching it with a large group of people and I fell in love with the film all over again for its uncompromising politics, its connections between people of color, and its biting wit.
The film follows an escaped alien slave, played by Joe Morton (who never gets a name in the film), who crash lands on Earth. But not only Earth, but Harlem, baby! Morton’s character, who is black and mute, has to learn to navigate Harlem circa early 1980s, before gentrification and upwardly mobile white faces replaced all black, in the grips of drug epidemic, crushed under the weight of Reaganomics, shaped by the factors of benign and not so benign neglect.
Morton’s character also has to contend with two slave catchers on his trail for his planet, Men in Black, played by director Sayles and David Strathaim, intent on recapturing him and taking him back. There is a hilarious and touching scene when the Men in Black come looking for Morton at a bar he has hung out at, and all the black people there defend and protect him. They know he is strange, they don’t know exactly what he is running from, but they know he is lost, he is black, and he needs protection. This look at community shows the beauty and the humanity breathing underneath the layer of grim dumped on the ghetto. It is an understanding that communities of color are places of strength and support, not just monstrous nightmarish landscapes as they are portrayed in mainstream culture.
Brother is clearly a critique and comment both about the history of black folks in this country, and the realities of immigration, and it is the film’s deft ability to show the connections and commonalities between the two that makes it a monumental film. When Morton’s character first crashes here, he lands in Ellis Island, now empty and derelict. One of his special powers is to be able to touch an object and sense the emotions, the history associated with it. Everywhere he touches in Ellis Island, we see him writhe in pain from the collective history there. We here the voices of immigrants crying, yelling, pleading in different languages. And we see Morton, voiceless (a powerful commentary on the state of black people and immigrants in this country), scream wordlessly as he falls to his knees with the historic pain of the American dream, a dream deferred.
The film is rife with humor, like the old black saying, “You gotta laugh to keep from crying.” In one scene, Morton’s character is riding the subway. A white card hustler comes up to him and asked if he wants to see a card trick, and takes him through a complicated set up. He asks if Morton wants to see another trick, “Want to see me make all the white people disappear?” the train stops at Columbia Circle, the stop right before Harlem, and the train empties of white faces. The white hustler looks back at him, winks, and says, “See? What’d I tell ya?” A deceptively simple and yet burning commentary on gentrification and red-lining.
But for me, the most important aspect of this film is that we see the world through the eyes of the alien, the other. In most films, we are looking at the outsider as foreign, strange, horrific, dangerous – which is much the same way our immigration policy goes today. When we speak of “Americans,” we are often using code words for white native born citizens. Anyone not of that category is foreign and alien. Brother flips it, shows us how truly nightmarish American society is from an outside perspective, especially in relationship to the experiences of people of color.
In the end of Brother From Another Planet, it is through the solidarity of the other runaway slaves, the immigrants and the refugees, in conjunction with the solidarity of the black community in Harlem, that Morton’s character achieves his freedom, defeats the Men in Black and begins to understand that though this place called Harlem is not his home, it can be a home for him, and that that, in the end, is enough.