Directed by John Sayles, who’s perhaps best known for directing the music video of Bruce Springsteen’s Vietnam veteran anthem “Born in the USA” as well as the Oscar-nominated mystery film Lone Star, the film The Brother From Another Planet is out of this world. Sort of.
On the surface, the film is your run-of-the-mill, fish-out-of-water story with the underlying theme of acceptance: The Brother (Joe Morton, aka Papa Pope from Scandal), a mute alien slave with three-toed feet who has escaped from an unknown planet, crash-lands his spaceship near Ellis Island. He then swims to Harlem, where the locals mistake him for homeless (because he technically is homeless, right?). The Brother eventually makes it to a nearby pub where its patrons find him bizarre—until he begins repairing the bar’s video games with just a touch. No, really: The Brother has the power to heal/repair anything with just a touch of his hand. The patrons then set him up with social worker Sam (Tom Wright) who gets him a job as a technician at a Times Square arcade and a place to stay as the boarder of a single white woman and her ultra-quiet biracial son Little Earl. While adapting to his new life as a New Yorker, we see The Brother in various, sometimes-humorous vignettes, including a one-night stand (!) with a once-famous club singer (Dee Dee Bridgewater) and his experience with drugs—all while being tailed by two white alien bounty hunters (Sayles and David Strathairn) dressed in black.
Beneath this surface though, The Brother From Another Planet explores a central theme that still resonates with many, if not the majority, of African-Americans today: kinship. Within the first 15 minutes of the film, The Brother, obviously hungry, begins eating a piece of fruit from a stand outside of a grocery. A store cashier, an Asian woman, rushes outside and snatches the fruit from his hand, scolding him in another language about his thievery. Confused, The Brother then watches the cashier from the outside as she takes money from a customer in exchange for fruit. Clearly understanding how this works now, The Brother, with his awesome superpowers, touches her cash drawer (which opens seamlessly), retrieves some bills, and tries to “buy” some fruit this time. Understandably, the cashier is infuriated. She runs out of the store, yelling for the police. The Brother runs after her (still trying to pay for his goods, nonetheless), but once he sees a white police officer just a few feet away, he flees the scene. The officer chases after him but is caught off guard when The Brother jumps effortlessly out of sight onto a fire escape, thus escaping his would-be captor.
At this point in the film, mind you, The Brother has only been in Harlem for a few hours, yet he took one look at the officer’s uniform and was able to comprehend that he needed to run away as quickly as possible instead of attempting to explain (albeit non-verbally) his situation. Basically, The Brother knew that if he were face to face with the officer after committing a crime – no matter how petty – his chances of possibly surviving would be slim. And we all know that this sentiment is still prevalent today. The scene is rather brilliant because it conspicuously states that no matter where you’re from, if you’re a black man, it’s easy to intuit that police officers are not your friends.
It’s also within that first 15 minutes of the film how welcoming the black community is to The Brother. At the bar, the regulars at first seem dubious of the alien, but after amicably probing him with questions, they soon realize that he, though a bit eccentric, is just like them. And since he’s unable to communicate, they’ve even designated a name for him by simply calling him “Brother.” Yes, “Brother” as in a nickname for a black man, but also “Brother” in the familial sense.
(It should be noted that while The Brother is from another planet and speaks exactly zero words, he still has the same experiences as many black earthlings. This is a bold statement that once again hammers home the notion that if you’re black, you’re probably going to be treated as such, no matter your background. It’s up to you to decide whether you should embrace it and deal with, or not—fortunately, The Brother decides to deal.)
Then there’s the issue of class and racial segregation—right in New York, one of the biggest and most urban cities in the world. In one scene, The Brother rides the subway and is met by a young, white card-playing prankster (Fisher Stevens). After his card tricks, the kid says to The Brother, “Wanna see me make all the white people disappear?” The Brother looks at him curiously as the train stops at the 96th street station, and, like magic, all the whites exit the train and a bounty of black people board as the train heads Uptown.
The Brother From Another Planet isn’t perfect. Some of the acting is sketchy (aside from Morton’s performance, because his acting is close to the definition of perfection), many of the jokes are hokey, and the social commentary of the state of Black America is a little too obvious. But like any decent film with sci-fi undertones, it does a good job of using something extraordinary to tap into the everyday–in this case, how blacks, whites and other races interact with each other and how those relationships have, for better or worse, remained stagnant for decades.