An unlikely story of a mute, black alien adrift in Harlem, John Sayles’ “The Brother from Another Planet” offers a captivating look at a variety of hot issues, including racial prejudice, class stratification, and drug addiction.
The film relies on brilliant performances from a tightly-knit cast, headed by Joe Morton in the lead, to bring to life a talk-heavy script that’s basically a collection of vignettes, some of which quite sharp.
Yet, there are many comic and amusing moments, based on the alien’s look at the state of race and class in American society. The brother is a slave who escaped from an anonymous planet and crash-lands around the historical Ellis Island. The white people treat him with pity and contempt, and unable to speak, he just observes.
Things change when he goes to Harlem, and a long scene occurs in a bar, where the brother shows how he can repair video games with the magic touch of his finger.
Later chapters about two white aliens (David Strathairn and director Sayles himself), dressed in black (“Men in Black”) that are pursuing the brother are not as good as the earlier ones.
Episodic to a fault, the saga is uneven, though I particularly liked a scene set in a New York subway, in which Sayles illustrates his critique of racial segregation by making the white passengers disappear and replacing them with black ones.
Sayles would develop as writer and director in future outings.