Following up on my review of “Unchained Memories,” the HBO documentary based on slave narratives, here’s a heartfelt plug for “Brother from Another Planet.”
An ultra-low-budget movie by John Sayles, it came out in 1984 and I’ve seen it about five times.
One dark night a UFO piloted by Joe Morton – a beautiful, innocent, telepathic, mute young refugee from the stars – makes a desperate crash landing in the Hudson River near Ellis Island.
Pulling himself on shore Morton wanders in the deserted building, overwhelmed by the tumbling echoes of long-departed immigrants who, like him, came seeking freedom.
From this first moment we know Sayles is trying to remind us of something. “Young bloods got no sense of history,” one character muses. Joe, like those long-ago Ellis Island immigrants, is a fugitive in search of freedom. He also happens to be black and will gradually get an idea of what that means on our planet.
He somehow gets to Harlem and randomly takes refuge in a seedy bar where the regulars can’t get a read on him. Is he drunk, deaf, or crazy? Is he a Haitian? When asked where he’s from, the “brother” slowly turns his thumb straight up. Maybe he’s from the Bronx?
It’s people with almost nothing who help him, and with his marginal new buddies Morton begins to find a foothold in our world. Loveable and expressive, he meets human failings and idiosyncracies with bemusement. Introverts will appreciate the way his silence is used by extroverts who cross his path.
His skittishness is justified when creepy, very white, extra-terrestrial paddy-rollers (one played by Sayles himself) appear, armed with Joe’s mug shots and a brand-new copy of “English as a Second Language.” Morton fears they’re closing in, but shadowy unknown friends are watching out for him.
The subplots, involving a washed-up lounge singer, mid-Westerners, heroin, etc. – are somewhat tedious and mainly serve to demonstrate that people are so wrapped up in themselves they don’t see what’s in front of them. The heart of this film is the immortal story of the underground railroad.