ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jennifer Upton is an American (non-werewolf) memoir writer for Story Terrace in London. You can read more of her film, books and music reviews at https://www.jennuptonwriter.com and on her blog https://womanycom.wordpress.com.
The best Science Fiction holds a mirror up to the society from which it sprang. Brother From Another Planet (1984) does this in several innovative ways. Written and directed by John Sayles, it tells the story of a three-toed empathic runaway alien slave (T2’s Joe Morton) stranded on earth. Despite the fact he cannot speak and is never named, he is one of the most sympathetic aliens ever committed to film. He hears and feels the past through surfaces. Upon landing on Ellis Island, he becomes overwhelmed by the voices of the past – a full 36 years before Klaus in The Umbrella Academy.
As much as Morton is the star of the film, Harlem – where “the brother” finds sanctuary – is his co-star. All the locations are real and at times it looks as if the people in the background were passers-by rather than paid extras. On life as person of color in the city, one character offers the opinion, “I’d rather be a cockroach on a baseboard up here, than the Emperor of Mississippi.” The brother likely feels the same way, albeit about his home planet.
At times, the narrative feels more like a series of short films, than a feature film, with each scene introducing a new character as the brother navigates his way through new earthly experiences. When he’s not working at fixing old arcade games with his special powers, he hangs out in a local bar. The regulars speculate as to his predicament, although they never guess he’s not “one of them.”
The brother’s silence leaves ample room for one-sided conversations. Funniest of all is when a couple of tourists from the mid-west spend hours drinking with him believing themselves to be interacting with a genuine big city “local.” All the people the alien encounters offer him a chance to learn about humanity. Conversely, they all see a bit of themselves in him, completely oblivious to his true identity. It’s a powerful testament to the phenomena of psychological projection while also tackling the nature of xenophobia. Essentially, what the film is saying is that it’s what we believe about others that leads to understanding and fellowship, regardless of whether those beliefs are rooted in truth.
The residents of Harlem all treat brother kindly, giving him shelter and a job. He even falls in love, although it’s never clear if he’ll see her again. Like many of the vignettes in the plot, this one is left open-ended.
The only unsympathetic characters in the entire film are the two white “men in black” pursuing “brother” from their home planet (played by Sayles himself and a young David Strathairn.) The film concludes with others of the brother’s kind who have also assimilated into earth society coming to his assistance. Seeing they’re outnumbered, the pursuers humorously flee proving there’s power in numbers if only we’d realize it.
Overall, it’s a great movie and very different for 1984. Back then, everyone was in love with cute little aliens with glowing fingers. Brother From Another Planet isn’t sci-fi for kids and thankfully, has none of the ‘80s trappings. There are precious few special effects (although the brother’s removable eyeball that records the past was very realistic), it has only one cute kid who is not the least bit precocious, and the visitor from space never goes home. What does it have that those other films don’t? A great deal more intelligence. It’s filled with enough American history analogies and yes – heart – to keep even the staunchest sci-fi fan happy. Given the current state of racial and immigration affairs in the United States and across the globe, the film’s message of acceptance has definitely withstood the test of time. In short, I liked it. A lot. Fans of great writing, documentary-style filmmaking and terrific acting will, too.