It took moxie to make a sci-fi like parabolic movie set in Harlem with a mostly black cast in the 1980s, a decade when megabuck productions studded with superstars were touted as the road to success. But small has always been beautiful to John Sayles, an innovative filmmaker who marches to the beat of his own drum.
The Brother from Another Planet is a slyly endearing and moral story. It touches upon such diverse themes as extra-terrestrial life, narcissism, drugs, slavery, technology, conscience, and community. In the opening scene, a spaceship crashes and a black man (Joe Morton) struggles out of New York Harbor onto Ellis Island. He possesses some psychic gifts; when he touches the walls in the famous entry hall, he can hear the voices of immigrants from years gone by.
Catching a barge to Manhattan, this alien ends up in Harlem, where he looks the same as everyone else walking the streets. In a bar, the owners and regulars try to figure out the identity of "the Brother." Since he can't or won't speak, they wonder whether he is an African, a junkie, or an alcoholic. Something sure is strange about the dude he fixes a broken video game by merely passing his hand over it.
Sam (Tom Wright), a social worker, gets the Brother a place to stay and lands the technological healer a job in a Times Square video arcade fixing machines. With two sinister men (John Sayles and David Straithairn) trying to track him down (they claim to be from the immigration department), the Brother keeps on the move, encountering a very clever subway magician (Fisher Stevens); a Rastafarian (Sidney Sheriff, Jr.), who takes him on a weird night trip; a jazz singer (Dee Dee Bridgewater), who welcomes him into her bed; and a young Harlem boy, who dies of a drug overdose.
Certainly one of the Brother's most peculiar experiences is with several white, middle-class men from Indiana who get lost in Harlem while on their way to a "self-actualization" conference. In the bar, they blab to the bemused alien, ending their monologue with the quip: "Communication, that's what it's all about!"
One of the many revelations in The Brother from Another Planet is its presentation of how most people in the story are so wrapped up in themselves that they don't really need the Brother to talk to them at all. The most blatant narcissist is the Wall Street dope dealer (Edward Baran) whom the Brother eventually confronts about the death of the boy in Harlem. For the dealer, dealing in heroin is simply a means of coping with "some cash flow problems."
Joe Morton is marvelous as the Brother, using only his face and gestures to communicate a variety of emotions. In the end, he must call upon fellow blacks in Harlem to fend off slave dealers from his home planet. His new friends risk their lives helping him, even as he served them by getting rid of the heroin chief. The Brother from Another Planet ends by affirming the triumph of conscience and community over death dealers of all stripes.