The sudden revelation that an object of familiarity has reached a milestone age shouldn’t be startling to me, but the other day this phenomenon snuck up on me yet again and there I was, staring into the internet, gawking at the age of yet another cultural product I half remembered, wondering if anyone cared in 1976 when The Honeymooners had been off the air for twenty years or if trivial information all the time dooms us to inescapable cycles of nostalgia and dread. It’s all about my own mortality, surely, because one day you look up and The Brother from Another Planet has turned 30 and so have you. Well, almost—released in the fall of 1984 by long defunct art house distributor Cinecom Pictures, John Sayles’s fourth feature, about an escaped alien slave hiding out in Harlem among the descendants of slaves who still very much live under siege, gets a thirtieth anniversary fete at BAMCinématek tonight, halfway through its twenty-ninth year, as the curious pick to close out the theater’s annual New Voices in Black Cinema mini-festival. Neither of us are so young anymore, The Brother or I.
Watching it again, it feels even older perhaps; its vision of 125th street and of Harlem as a majority Negro space has been rendered quaint and nostalgic by the passage of time. The prices posted on the front of Harlem grocery stores are certainly reason for a hearty sigh, too, as are the many instances of class division and assumed white privilege in the film: The more things change, the more they stay the same could be the tagline for a reissue of Sayles’s picture. But I’ll settle for it being 30. I was born just nine months before its September 7 release date, and The Brother from Another Planet ages right along with me, in ways more intimate than Ghostbusters or The Hunger, and the cultural memory that it’s a party to is no small thing, fragile and easily lost in the era of voracious nostalgia.
It’s the type of picture you’d find watching TV on a Saturday afternoon in the early ’90s and catch half of, freaked out surely by the three giant, clawlike toes that Joe Morton’s Brother sports; it’s the only recognizably nonhuman thing about him. Otherness wasn’t something I thought about back then, at least not with a capital O. The Brother can’t speak English, and Joe Morton, in a performance that maintains the childlike slapstick innocence that folks started calling “Chaplinesque” at least eighty years ago, spends a significant amount of time bewildered at the simply astonishing, hard-to-fathom behavior of the humans. Most of his communication, most of his learning—about race, about femininity, about cultural mores—comes from watching and listening. A foreigner among a dispossessed people in the uptown environs he swims to after a series of humorous misunderstandings on Manhattan Island (where he first comes ashore after his busted space ship crash lands), he immediately observes the hostility with which black men are treated by the police. The very first use of point-of-view editing rhetoric in the film is Morton’s Brother staring out as a cop pats down a detained black man’s pants.
His character, as many black men are to other members of society who often don’t care to listen to or know them in any real sense, is a tabula rasa on which they can project their assumptions, anxieties, and fears. The Brother doesn’t want to trouble anyone, and is simply trying to make sense of the strange land he’s found himself in, but the movie finds great comedic fodder in various big-haired New Yorkers’ instinctive responses to The Brother’s ineffable alien cool. They all just know what he must be thinking, and for the most part The Brother goes right along with the action. In doing so, he holds a mirror to the city’s faces as he listens to the travails and kvetching of hookers and Indiana tourists, small-time crooks and city administration workers, barkeeps and Bible thumpers. Fisher Stevens shows up at one point as a weirdo with a penchant for card tricks and more than one scheme up his sleeve. It’s a vision of a scrappier New York, alluringly nostalgic from our late point in history that doesn’t want to embrace the horror show the nightly news made of such spaces as the ’80s wore on.
Sayles presents a neighborly vision of Harlem. No hint of crime epidemics or crack. Black professionals are everywhere. Men who do little but loiter in bars and barbershops are not seen as a menace, as a blight, somehow lacking in morality or industriousness. The central plot, in which The Brother is pursued by a pair of alien slavehunters dressed in the black suits and glasses of secret government agents (played by the director and the character actor David Strathairn), is far less engaging than the meandering scenes of contemporaneous life in this black space.
Some might see all these niceties as whitewashing, this positive evocation of an early to mid-’80s black community not defined by poverty and degradation as bleaching the stains of systemic injustice, but Sayles’s film, funded in part by a MacArthur grant he was awarded after the release of his third film Lianna, is doing a quietly revolutionary thing for a popular movie. Although Richard Pryor was just about ceding his place to Eddie Murphy as America’s favorite black movie star around the time of The Brother from Another Planet’s release, neither of them got to make movies for the masses that gave voice to the communities of the black working class that their comedy rose out of.
The Brother from Another Planet opened two weeks before NBC launched The Cosby Show, in the midst of Hollywood’s embrace of identifiably bourgeois black stars if not sophisticated black subject matter, and it was a modest hit, earning $4 million at the box office on a budget of $350,000. Unlike so much of what one could refer to as “black cinema” from that era, be it the work of the Los Angeles School of Black Filmmakers such as Charles Burnett or Haile Gerima or late-career efforts of Michael Schultz and Gordon Parks, it entered the popular imagination, the mainstream lexicon. It’s among the earliest so-called independent films I recall my parents watching and referencing in my youth.
Of course, The Brother from Another Planet is a fantasy. The reality of the complex challenges black Americans would be inundated with and judged for over the intervening years is kept at arm’s length in favor of allegory and fable. To say that the very streets upon which Sayles’s film was shot were bludgeoned by the drug war, devalued by redlining, and policed by folks without the best interest of the community at heart, is the stuff of historical record, but narrative films, even ones made by conscientious artists like Sayles, are rarely the best way to encounter a nuanced revision of established histories. His film is more soothing than it has any right to be.
Eight months after the release of The Brother from Another Planet, the row house at 6221 Osage Avenue in the predominantly black enclave of Cobbs Creek, West Philadelphia, was tear gassed, fired upon several thousand times, and eventually firebombed after the occupants of the building, members of a black separatist organization known as MOVE, refused to clear out. Tension between MOVE and the police dated all the way back to the late ’70s, when officer James Ramp was shot in the head during a shootout with MOVE members, although it remains a point of debate whether he was shot by someone from the organization or struck down by friendly fire. Regardless, hostilities continued, the community that housed MOVE eventually turned against the group, and half a black neighborhood went up in flames in a racially charged city under the stewardship of its first black mayor.
Jason Osder’s documentary Let the Fire Burn, also screening as part of New Voices in Black Cinema, takes us right into the belly of the beast, sparing no indignity, allowing no one the assurance of moral sanctity or outright victimhood as it tells this story. The fire that consumed several blocks of the predominantly black West Philadelphia community is a reminder, just as potent as Katrina, of how little municipal governments, no matter who is running them, prioritize communities of color when the shit hits the fan. The movie doesn’t rely on recent interviews or odd zoom-ins on still photographs to tell this story of a vindictive police department, an unhinged Black separatist group and the community caught between them. It lets the footage do all the talking.
Relying neither on narration or title cards, Let the Fire Burn recreates the Philadelphia police’s foolhardy raid in what feels like real time, using archival news footage to great effect, contextualizing the events with deposition video of the one surviving child from the MOVE house (the late Michael Ward, who passed away in a cruise ship hot tub less than a year ago) and testimony from a biracial community panel put together in the wake of the destruction to piece together what had happened and why. We learn amazing things from this panel testimony, beyond glimpsing the sheer volume of people’s hair back them. For instance, before he was a scumbag governor, Ed Rendell was a scumbag district attorney. Politicians are motivated by fear and loathing, perhaps more so than most of us, but Rendell, making the case for the raid and suggesting it was ultimately the right thing to do, is operating under the premise that white men know best and that the paternal hand of the law was needed to protect these negroes from themselves.
Both The Brother from Another Planet and Let the Fire Burn are the products of white men. One of them is over 60 years old and has made eighteen feature films. Does this complicate their inclusion in a festival called New Voices in Black Cinema? What is black cinema anyway? It’s a question that the two handfuls of people that care to debate such things have been doing, ad infinitum, since around the time that the Black Arts Movement began its slow fade into irrelevance and the nascent texts of academic film criticism by prominent African and African American film scholars began to trickle into publication, a decade or so later.
This year’s New Voices in Black Cinema program doesn’t get us any closer to an answer, although given its name, I’d forgive you for assuming they have. That’s not to say that the mini-festival, which is put on in conjunction with the Act Now Foundation, a production company and advocacy group that seeks to foster works that explore “African American and Latino experiences across the globe,” isn’t a handsome selection. Most of the work is by black authors, including the local premiere of Tommy Oliver’s 1982, an intermittently well acted look at a black working class family in Philadelphia family torn apart by the early days of the crack epidemic, and Unsound, Darious Britt’s narrative, which had its world premiere at the festival, about a documentary filmmaker on the brink on finishing his breakthrough film when his mother is diagnosed with a debilitating mental illness, throwing his own priorities into flux.
These films will bounce between regional fests and the niche black film fests that are now an established part of the ever-growing world of Film Festivals (3,000 nationwide and counting, up from several dozen just a few decades ago). Whether in West Hollywood or Martha’s Vineyard, Chicago or San Francisco, events are held every year that highlight work the work of African American actors, directors, and screenwriters. The question hovers around these events frequently. The director of one such event, in the historically black Boston enclave of Roxbury, told me very candidly a year ago, when your author screened a motion picture I had made that predominantly focuses on white characters in a tale of grief and revenge during the aftermath of the untimely death of their black friend, “We debated a lot whether your film was in keeping with our mission.” I got the sense not everyone agreed with her desire to include Redlegs, whether I was black or not. Whether my work or my own blackness was being called into question I know not, but it left me pondering my place in such an ecosystem.
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Some insist on some level of purity, if such a thing is possible; black cinema can’t include movies that are about white protagonists or directed by non-black filmmakers. Others may eschew the former qualification, but not the latter, or vice versa. This is absurd perhaps, and beside the point for most audiences, who normally have no idea what race the director is when watching a film. Still, in a year in which films like Fruitvale Station, The Butler, Newlyweeds and of course Oscar winner Twelve Years a Slave reignited claims that a new wave of black directors was poised to make a big impact on a medium that is largely dominated by upper-middle-class and lower-upper-class whites, the American negro’s place in the world of American Cinema is a precarious thing. It comes as no surprise that blacks are galvanized by seeing images of themselves onscreen after a century of racism heaped at us from the Hollywood dream machine. But it’d be more than a little encouraging if they were just as galvanized to hear of the successes of blacks behind the camera, if not more so. It’s the only antidote to the status quo, and the only way terms like “black cinema” will ever have any meaning.
In truth, the questions one has to ask to define such a thing are those that few people feel comfortable asking, let alone answering: Is the money that financed the film in black hands from the beginning? Will the rewards find their way to black hands in the end? In the meantime, will black audiences have the film marketed to them, have places where they can easily see it? Will they identify with its themes and aesthetics? It’s all just posturing until those questions are answered. Your black cinema might not end up being my Negro cinema or her African American Cinema. I imagine Colored Cinema might have been what the white cinema owners in the deep South of my grandparents’ era might have called the Midnight Rambles they’d host in order to capitalize on the hungry black audiences they couldn’t allow to patronize their establishments during polite hours. They might have been the most honest of all of us.