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An Introduction to The Brother from Another Planet

5 Jun 2013

The Brother from Another Planet screens at 8pm on 5 June 2013 at the Crowley Theater in Marfa, Texas as part of Ballroom’s New Growth Film Program, co-curated by Rashid Johnson and Josh Siegel, MoMA. Admission is free and open to the public.

An Introduction to John Sayles’ The Brother from Another Planet

Last week’s film, Space Is the Place, extolled the virtues of a transcendent science fiction aimed at elevating the black population beyond its earthbound social state to the forgotten and immortal path beyond the stars through music. This week’s film, The Brother from Another Planet, inverts Sun Ra’s Afro-futurist and escapist rhetoric, offering a parabolic albeit comedic exploration of life in Harlem in 1984.

Written, directed and edited by independent filmmaker John Sayles, The Brother from Another Planet stars Joe Morton as an escaped slave from outer space, who resembles a black human being everywhere except in his feet. He lands in the ocean off of Ellis Island and blankly makes his way to Harlem where he must quickly learn about an abstract monetary system, class struggle and racial divide without using language, as he cannot speak. Sayles’ choice to make him mute turns the brother into a sort of mirror for society and leads to nuanced satire on immigration and assimilation.

Sayles is a director, screenwriter and author who is often lauded for using the system to make films against the system. Taking the money he earns from blockbuster screenwriting jobs, he finances independent projects such as this one, which was made with a modest budget of $400,000 and a four-week shooting schedule. The film’s special effects, described by Robert Ebert as “borrowed from the cheapest B space operas from the 1950s,” were created using construction paper and pins. Although this was, for the most part, a result of budgetary restrictions, the low-fi aesthetic complements one of the film’s most trenchant premises, that technology won’t necessarily save you. Rather, its inscriptive force may enslave you, the way it has on the brother’s home planet.

Both the narrative and soundtrack of The Brother from Another Planet were stylistically influential in Rashid Johnson’s thinking about his most recent film, Samuel in Space, commissioned by Ballroom Marfa for New Growth. In it, a young black man runs and tumbles through the opposite of New York City, an empty desert landscape — he too may be a fugitive alien on earth or alternately a fugitive human on a distant planet. The film is an exercise in para-fiction, borrowing from an experimental ethnography that enacts a discourse in which formal filmic exploration is brought to bear on social representation.

– Erin Kimmel, Associate Curator

The Brother from Another Planet screens at 8pm on 5 June 2013 at the Crowley Theater in Marfa, Texas as part of Ballroom’s New Growth Film Program, co-curated by Rashid Johnson and Josh Siegel, MoMA. Admission is free and open to the public.