Oh brother, the alien problem is getting pretty heavy in New York City this summer.
A relatively unknown independent film, The Brother From Another Planet uses the world of sci-fi and aliens visiting Earth to examine a number of predominant social issues from the early 1980s.
The trailer has a comedic tone to it as the narrator reads off some review descriptions. It appears to be about an alien that looks like a black man, coming to New York and interacting with the citizens. It also appears to be a lower budget film judging from the trailer. So let’s see just what The Brother From Another Planet is about.
Presented below is the trailer for the film.
The Fiction of The Film
A spaceship crashes at Ellis Island, New York carrying a three-toed alien ( Joe Morton) that presents the outward appearance of a black man. The crash left him missing one leg, which he is able to grow back by placing his hand over the damaged area, eliciting a warm, glowing light. He is mute, or at least chooses not to talk, but is able to understand the humans he encounters, and responds with genial hand gestures, or sometimes a blank stare. He is also able to pick up psychic echoes from objects about the people that had touched that object previously.
He enters the city, trying to blend in and understand the local customs. He observes the use of money to purchase food at a local bodega before entering a bar to hide from a police officer which he recognizes from the style of uniform. In the bar he is introduced to the bar keep, Odell (Steve James), Fly (Daryl Edwards) a younger black man who plays a space shooter video game and complains about everything, and Smokey and Walter (Leonard Jackson and Bill Cobb) who are older men that spout strange theories about the way the world works.
The men at the bar are shocked by this strange “brother” that wanders in, as he is able to “fix” the video game for Fly and also doesn’t speak. He is pawned off on Sam (Tom Wright), who works for the city as a social worker and finds him a boarding house to live in. There the alien meets Randy Sue Carter (Caroline Aaron) and her son, Little Earl (Herb Newsome). Later two white men in black suits (John Sayles and David Strathairn) enter the bar looking for the “brother”. The bar patrons are wary of them and their strangeness. The audience recognizes them as alien bounty hunters searching for the crashed escapee.
The black alien encounters many aspects of New York City, working as repairman in a video game arcade, seeing a card hustler (Fisher Stevens) on the subway, visiting Time Square and meeting singer Malverne Davis (Dee Dee Bridgewater), and getting assaulted by two punks trying to rob him. He then finds a young boy, one of his assaulters, OD’d of a drug overdose and gets a sense of the drug with his psychic power. Meanwhile the two men in black follow him around the city, trying to apprehend him. While visiting the Underground Railroad Museum with Little Earl, the alien indicates he too is an escaped slave.
After a brief romantic or sexual tryst with Malverne, the alien sees the other man who assaulted him and follows him. The alien removes one of his eyeballs and places it in a planter as a monitoring device. Returning to the bar he encounters the two men in black who fight with the patrons and the alien before he is able to escape again. Retrieving the eyeball, the alien replays the events of the day and understands the movement of the drugs through various hands. He follows the trail back to Mr Vance, a white businessman in a skyscraper downtown, and forces him to see the truth of what the drugs are doing to the black people of New York using a psychic link, before giving Vance a taste of his own drugs..
The alien is cornered by the men in black, who plug a device into him allowing them to control his movements. As they are escorting him back to their ship, the alien sees some strange graffiti (alien writing) that makes him excited. He knocks the control device from their hands and races towards a group of 6 other black people, who also are aliens. The “brother” stands with them, as the group chases the men in black, cornering them. The men decide to blow themselves up rather than be caught. The alien asks one of the others if he’s going back into space (using the thumbs up hand sign). The other gives the alien a thumbs down sign, and the alien is last seen riding a subway train into the distance.
“You know what’s on them satellites come crashing down? Diseases. Diseases we ain’t even got a name for. Space germs.” – Smokey
History in the Making
The Brother from Another Planet stands as an interesting science-fiction film from the 1980s. It was the first sci-fi film to feature a black character in the lead, as well as a predominantly black cast. It also was a lower budget film that was written, produced and directed by a white man which showcased these characters of Harlem. John Sayles (writer of Piranha, The Howling and Battle Beyond The Stars) used the prize money from his MacArthur Fellows Grant to fund this film about a black alien coming to Earth and experiencing what life was like in New York City and Harlem in 1984.
The importance of the film in the history of the sci-fi genre may not be as well known as other, bigger films from its era, but stands as a socially and politically strong statement of immigration and social issues, specifically in the lower class neighborhoods of New York. Sayles’ script captures a seemingly authentic look at a variety of characters in and around Harlem. As the trailer describes, it pitches itself as a comedy but it doesn’t create caricatures of the people it portrays. Rather the comedy that exists comes from the odd situations that the “brother” finds himself in.
If a viewer were to walk into a screening of The Brother From Another Planet five minutes late, it might be mistaken for a contemporary film about social classes. Apart from a few moments at the beginning of the film, and the occasional glow from the “brothers” hand, there is little to this film that resembles a science-fiction film. Of course, the third act when the alien pulls his eyeball out to “record” the whereabouts of the drug dealer might be a strong giveaway, but the film lacks the nominal spaceship, or even a non-humanoid looking alien (excepting the three-toes seen on his barefoot, once at the beginning of the film).
Sayles’ story uses the story of an alien stranded on Earth, much like E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, to discuss the social issues that surround immigrants, drugs, homelessness and a myriad of other problems often seen as inner-city issues. The science-fiction aspect, however thin, is allegorical for real-world problems faced by normal Earthbound individuals. Like many classic sci-fi films, that allegory on the human condition serves as the connection between the audience and the filmmaker communicating on issues that might be too difficult (or boring) to create a film about. Some obvious examples that Sc-Fi Saturdays have viewed include Soylent Green (which discussed overpopulation), Seconds (about immortality and how best to live a life), and Escape From New York (another film about New York, but in a dystopian world).
The film’s main backbone, however, is its social commentary. Allegorically the film is a thinly veiled attempt to capture the immigrant experience in New York City. The “brother” lands on Ellis Island, which is the quintessential ideal of the American Dream. Ellis Island, is the port through which millions of immigrants entered the country during the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, as depicted in films such as Once Upon A Time in America and The Godfather part II. It served as their, and his, entrypoint into the culture and society of New York City. His plight is that of an illegal alien, not to put too fine a point on it, and is pursued by two other aliens that are seen as bounty hunters or law enforcers of some kind looking to bring him home, or at least remove him from Earth. By the end of the film the alien discovers another small enclave of other immigrants–possibly members of his own tribe or community–that he is able to join and confront the enforcement officers that are chasing him, and presumably is able to enter into this strange society that is New York City.
The “brother” encounters numerous characters that help paint a portrait of the black experience in Harlem, 1984. These include vignettes with the Korean fruit vendor that catches him stealing from her till, the eccentric characters of the bar (which has a little bit of a Barbershop vibe to it), the single mother, Randy Sue Carter, trying to raise her mixed race son, and the assortment of homeless, junkies, and other less savory characters in and around the streets of the city. The alien gets a chance to work as a repairman for a video arcade, utilizing his natural talents for “healing” objects by touching them. When he loses that job he begins trying to make money washing car windows on the street for tips. Some of the characters he meets are benign and possibly looking to talk to someone, like Randy Sue or Walter and Smokey at the bar. Some are there to help him, like Sam the social worker and even Malverne Davis. And others want to show him the ropes of the city like Fisher Stevens’ card sharp on the subway (“Want to see me make all the white people disappear,” he asks) and Virgil who shows him the darker side of the city with the indigents and drug abusers.
When the alien encounters the drug overdose of the young man (boy), his childlike innocence of what has occurred is evident in his assessment of the situation. His psychic abilities recount the agonizing death of the user as he touches and experiments with the syringe. This encounter leads the “brother” into the last leg of his journey in the film. The first part of the film was him exploring the new land that he is part of, with the second part having him start to become a productive member of the society, and interacting deeper with the locals. The final act is him working as a member of that society and seeking vengeance on the life that was wrongly taken, as he uses his alien powers (and camera-like eyeball) to hunt down the person responsible and make them pay for their crimes. He discovers that the drugs are coming in from outside the community, funneled in by a rich white man in a skyscraper, both apart from the world of Harlem by social status and zip code. The alien metes out the punishment to this man for his crimes, outside the bounds of normal laws and conventions; killing him with his own drug supply. Ethically, it’s having the punishment fit the crime. The alien now sees himself as part of the community.
The Science in The Fiction
The Brother From Another Planet is certainly an atypical science-fiction film. It seems as if the lower budget for the film dictated the elements within. There is very little “standard” sci-fi elements, with this being more of a social science-fiction film. The alien does have some latent paranormal abilities such as his psychic rapport with objects and being able to sense memories or feelings from them. Perhaps it’s even more of an empathetic sort of gift. These gifts also allow him to use some kind of energy to heal or fix objects, much as the E.T. did in the film of the same name. He regrows his own missing leg and fixes a cut on Little Earl’s forehead, as well as making a number of video games work again.
Then there’s the strange ability of his detachable eyeball. This is an interesting ability that could definitely come in handy. Remove your eyeball and let it “see” what’s happening. Then get a full report back when you reinsert it into your head. Nothing like this had really been depicted before, outside of possibly robots removing their eye (as would be seen in The Terminator later in the year). This opens up the question about the aliens physiology: how can he look so much like humans, and yet be completely different. These sort of differences are shocking and meant to depict the alien as a definite foreigner. But also the actions that the audience observes tells viewers that he is also compassionate, a seeker of justice and looking to live out his life, just as every other being on this planet.
The Final Frontier
While The Brother From Another Planet may not be a widely recognized or popular film it still exists as a lynchpin in the genre for inclusion and representation for persons of color in what at this time was still a decidedly caucasian genre. That aspect was changing, slowly, and had been doing so for at least a decade, but this movie ended up making the leap overnight.
Having grown up on comics, television and film, “Jovial” Jay feels destined to host podcasts and write blogs related to the union of these nerdy pursuits. Among his other pursuits he administrates and edits stories at the two largest Star Wars fan sites on the ‘net (Rebelscum.com, TheForce.net), and co-hosts the Jedi Journals podcast over at the ForceCast network.