This 1984 cult film might feature a bad mother-shutyourmouth who’s crash-landed his space ship on planet Earth — and this dark-skinned humanoid might have seemingly magical abilities to heal injuries and repair electronics — but don’t get it confused for some sort of latter-day-blaxploitation version of E.T. Not much is made clear by the end of this disjointed and slow-moving plot, but the film strongly suggests the mute alien credited only as “The Brother” is an escaped slave, hiding out in a Harlem boarding house from two bumbling Bubba Fetts, intergalactic bounty-hunting crackers.
This storyline seems like prime fodder for a science-fictionalized send-up of American race relations, but any overall message remains largely incoherent. Brother alternates between shamefully on-the-nose symbolism (the Brother actually crashes outside Ellis Island’s Immigration Station, and his escaped-slave status is oh-so subtly eluded to in a lecture on Harriet Tubman and the underground railroad) and meandering cinema vérité with only the faintest hint of narrative arc. The ambiguity is compounded by Sayles’ decision to deny his stranger in a strange land (Morton, perhaps best known as computer programmer Miles Dyson in Terminator 2) functioning vocal chords with which to deliver any sort of outsider perspective.
Instead, Morton undercuts his too-rare bits of Chaplinesque mugging and slapstick (a backward somersaulting stunt alone is enough to make the film worth watching) with extended periods of non-reaction. Much like The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, another artistic work with a mute character at its center, much of the film’s dramatic tension comes from the confessions of secondary characters spoken while the film’s supposed principal stares disinterestedly into space. Unlike McCullers’ masterpiece, however, the lengthy monologues in Brother are often mundane-sounding small talk or anecdotal non-starters seemingly unrelated to any sort of larger theme. As the closing credits roll, the suspicion lingers that this black refugee might’ve had something profound to say about America’s fractured alien culture, something to simultaneously cut through and contextualize all of that self-absorbed jibber-jabber, if only he had been given a voice to express it. And maybe that’s the point.