I can’t quite put my finger on it. It’s somewhere between blaxploitaion, an Ed Wood cheapie, and a student film…but one that you actually don’t mind watching. Though it may concern outer-space in the very vaguest sense, make no mistake, this is a street movie through and through and wears its low-budget well. Whether it be the early Ernest Dickerson documentary-flavored cinematography, the simple steel drum tinklings on the soundtrack, or the very low-tech way in which the Brother does surveillance (he takes his eye out of socket and puts it on a stoop), it just FEELS right, like a mangy fur coat you find in the trash that happens fit better than the rest of your wardrobe.
As for the story, it’s pretty simple. Dark-skinned alien (Joe Morton) crash lands in
Harlem. Mills about the streets unrecognized and unbothered because he blends in. Begins to discover importance of money, race, sex and advertising in everyday life. Shows a penchant for magically repairing stand-up arcade games and fuzzy TV sets. Starts dressing like Samuel L. Jackson with backwards-Kangol. Slowly earns a place in the community with his skills until two white slave-masters / men-in-black (Sayles and David Strathairn) show up to escort him back to his old planet. Will he stay or will he go? Will he ever “phone home” collect from 125th Street?
Not that you’re ever too concerned. Most scenes are played for a kind of low-key comedy. There’s not really too much at stake other than the Brother’s successful assimilation. It’s all about catching that VIBE.
As for John Sayles’ writing and direction, he feels a little looser, a little funkier on this one. He wisely steps back and lets his
Harlem location and Joe Morton’s face do most of the work. There’s a great scene in the pivotal uptown bar where most of the action takes place. A few old barflies ramble on and on as the Brother soaks up their “knowledge” in the background. Sayles just lets the scene run long, uninterrupted. Because that’s what it’s about – the community. And like the Brother, we’re just tourists here, happy to pull up a stool and soak it all in.