The Brother From Another Planet: Beer on the Rocks and the Kindness of Strangers

The Brother From Another Planet (1984) Directed by John Sayles. Starring Joe Morton, Darryl Edwards, Steve James, Bill Cobbs, and David Strathairn. Screenplay by John Sayles.

Over the past several weeks we’ve watched movies that were inspired by literature, political events, and other films, so it’s time for something different. It’s time for a movie that came to the director in a series of dreams.

In a 1984 interview with Cinefantastique, John Sayles describes where he got the idea for The Brother From Another Planet. But he doesn’t simply say he dreamed up the idea. He explains that he had three different dreams with snippets of scenarios that weren’t good ideas for movies, but together they led him to a workable idea. He wrote the screenplay in six-day flurry, then made the movie using his own money, which included some from a MacArthur Genius Grant and some from the payment he received for the screenplay adapting Jean M. Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear.

The Brother From Another Planet was filmed across for four weeks on location in Harlem in March of 1984, mostly at night and in the cold, with locals working as extras and an almost entirely Black cast and crew. That crew included cinematographer Ernest R. Dickerson, who was a relative newcomer at the time but would go on to work as director of photography with his film school classmate Spike Lee (including Do The Right Thing (1989) and Malcolm X (1992)) and is now a prolific television director. (Sayles and Dickerson also worked together on Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” music video.) Sayles and producer Maggie Renzi play roles in The Brother From Another Planet, and Sayles resigned from the Director’s Guild before filming, not because he opposed the Guild’s requirements, but because he couldn’t afford to hire assistant directors.

In other words, The Brother From Another Planet is an indie movie in every way: a passion project made cheap and fast with no studio backing or financing, but with a hell of a lot of talent behind it. It opened in arthouse theaters before expanding to mainstream theaters in large cities, and did end up making quite a profit compared to its budget, but nothing about this film was ever meant to be a big, splashy cinematic spectacle. That makes it quite different from the other films I’ve covered in this column so far, although it’s definitely not the last small-scale indie film we’ll watch.

We begin with an opening so unsubtle that it’s charming in its audacity: An alien from outer space crash-lands on Ellis Island. We even get a close-up of the sign that reads “ELLIS ISLAND IMMIGRATION CENTER,” just in case we’re in danger of missing the point. The alien (Joe Morton) looks basically human, with the exception of his three-toed feet—and his ability to regrow one of those feet after it’s severed in the crash. He spends an uneasy night in the historic building, hearing echoes of the past via some psychic ability, before catching a ride across the water and into the heart of New York City.

He is both bewildered and awed by what he sees as the quiet early morning gives way to the fast-paced daytime bustle. When he becomes overwhelmed he takes refuge in a sleepy neighborhood bar where the owner (Steve James) is listening to his regulars (Leonard Jackson, Bill Cobbs, and Daryl Edwards) complain about things they’ve obviously complained about a million times before. The older guys miss when Harlem was hip and thriving, but the good old days are gone. This is Harlem in 1984. Times are hard for everybody.

The men don’t know what to make of the stranger, but they help him out. They introduce him to a social worker (Tom Wright), find him a place to stay, and get him some odd jobs fixing arcade games and small appliances—which he can do easily thanks to his alien powers. As he’s getting used to this new life, a couple of alien men in black (John Sayles and David Strathairn) show up looking for him.

The alien hunters provide only the loosest plot structure, but that’s to the movie’s benefit. So much of its charm comes from the vignettes that show the alien navigating life on Earth amongst a brilliant cast of characters, every one of them wonderfully, wholly human: the scene-stealing old guys in the bar, the alien’s temporary landlady and her small family, a fellow arcade worker, a pair of lost tourists from Indiana, a charming nightclub singer. Not all of the vignettes work—the subplot about hunting down a wealthy uptown drug dealer is very clunky—but the majority of them are great, and a few are sublime.

My favorite scene in the entire movie is one of these perfect little gems. The alien is riding the subway when a young man (Fisher Stevens) offers to show him a card trick. The fast-talking card sharp’s trick is an elaborate story that doesn’t have any ulterior purpose. He’s not trying to hustle or cheat the alien; all he’s doing is showing off. He’s very much aware that his silent one-man audience is reacting with confusion and discomfort, but he rolls with it in an easy, accepting manner, building up to the moment the subway reaches his stop. There, the card trickster offers to show the alien one last trick—“I’ll make all the white people disappear”—which he says with a sly but not unfriendly look, right before he and the other white folks exit the train, and of the passengers who remain are the people of color. It’s a moment of connection and an acknowledgement of division, funny and fast but also warm. It’s such a brilliant scene.

Throughout the film, the alien is never named; he’s completely mute and doesn’t introduce himself, although he can understand and communicate. The other characters only ever call him “brother.” We learn nothing about his life before the crash; the only context we get for why the other aliens are pursuing him is a silent exchange with a young boy in a museum exhibit about enslaved people. That might be a problem with a different actor at the center of the film, but Joe Morton’s performance is phenomenal. He’s captivating every moment he’s on screen, with every thought and emotion showing through his expressions and body language. The alien adapts to life on Earth not by directly mimicking what he sees, but by observing and interacting. He’s not a cipher or a mirror, for all that the other characters project their own experiences and assumptions onto him; he’s a person who is learning and changing in a strange new world.

This provides a stark contrast to the alien slave-catchers, who have no interest in getting along with the people of Earth. They view humans as mere obstacles preventing them from catching their quarry. From the human perspective, the men in black are pegged by literally everybody the meet as wrong. It isn’t just that they’re white men in a majority Black neighborhood. The tourists from Indiana in search of their self-actualization conference also stick out like sore thumbs, but they don’t have the same air of disdainful superiority and, as a result, are not treated with the same hostile suspicion. It happens again and again: the humans interpret the alien slave-catchers as cops or government agents, as that is the best human explanation for how off-putting they are, but everybody is aware that it’s not quite right.

I’ve come across a few critics, writing both when the film came out and in later retrospectives, that interpret The Brother From Another Planet as a story about immigrant assimilation. But I don’t think assimilationis what the movie is going for. The film never translates or subtitles any of the non-English languages the people of New York are speaking, and multiple characters are openly hostile toward any hint of policing or immigration enforcement. The overall effect is, in a broad sense, anti-colonial rather than pro-assimilation: the community will welcome you if you aren’t trying to change or exploit them.

Sci fi films with extraterrestrials have always been used for political storytelling, but for a couple of decades after World War II that often meant using aliens as a threat to say something about how humans act and what humans learn in the face of great danger. The aliens might bring a benevolent warning (The Day the Earth Stood Still), present a cautionary example (The Mysterians), represent an overwhelming or repulsive danger (1953’s The War of the Worlds), or serve as an allegory for common fears and paranoia (1956’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers). But starting in the second half of the ’70s, there were more movies telling stories about visiting Earth from the aliens’ point of view. This often meant a more personal exploration of what the alien visitors want, from the kids who are just trying to find their family in Disney’s Escape to Witch Mountain (1975) to David Bowie trying to save his planet in The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), from the alien castaways who want to go home in E.T. (1982) or Cocoon (1985) to the alien refugees who have to make Earth their new home (Alien Nation, 1988).

It’s not that the other flavors of extraterrestrial film became less common during the late ’70s and into the ’80s; there were still plenty of alien movies being made about monsters and wars and invasions. But the genre did open up to make more room for extraterrestrials who were more us than them.

The Brother From Another Planet is but one example of that shift—and the film knows it. When the alien is with nightclub singer Bernice (jazz legend Dee Dee Bridgewater), there is a moment when Bernice laughs a bit at herself for spending the night with a man whom she knows nothing about, and she wonders, “How come I like you so much? You could be anybody.”

He could be anybody. That’s why this is a movie about an alien and not just some random guy lost in New York. They could be anybody. The tone and style of the films will change, the politics and themes will evolve, but we’ll never stop making movies about aliens coming to Earth, because they could be anybody, and that’s an irresistible opportunity for lovers of science fiction.

What do you think of The Brother From Another Planet as a different type of alien movie from those we’ve watched so far? What about the more indie aspects of its style: the ensemble of vivid characters, the vignette-like structure, the high-color but grounded cinematography?  Which of the scenes were your favorites?

Next week: I have no idea what I’ll find to say about Close Encounters of the Third Kind that hasn’t been said hundreds of times before, but I won’t let that stop me… Watch it on Apple, Amazon, Google Play, YouTube, Vudu, Microsoft. icon-paragraph-end

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