The movie that brought historic black experiences to science fiction


Defining science fiction is tricky. To say it’s a story that includes science and technology seems far too simple, since most stories have some level of science and technology. There must be more than that.

If we go back thousands of years, we find works of imagination like the story of Daedalus, whose imprisonment on top of a tower is not so different from that of Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings, and whose artificial wings that allow him and his son Icarus to soar aren’t too far off from the wings Marvel’s Falcon attaches to. Is it science fiction? That may be right, and it’s as old as most known stories.


Perhaps what separates sci-fi from drama is the inclusion of an ability or thing with an artificial or natural explanation that doesn’t actually exist in reality (at least, not yet). Monsters don’t really exist, but dangerous and unknown species might. Magic spells don’t really exist, but manipulating quantum waves and time warping might be possible; as 2001: A Space Odyssey author Arthur C. Clarke famous writing“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Science fiction lives in the realm of the plausible.

Lessons learned from sci-fi movies

Science fiction’s ability to plausibly go beyond what is possible is what makes science fiction such a good vehicle for real-world moral and social commentary. The story of Daedalus isn’t just a compelling tale of imaginary flight technology, it’s a profound parable. Exulting in his ability to fly, Icarus would not be content. Ignoring his father’s warning, he soared higher and higher, flying too close to the sun. His constructed wings melted and Icarus fell to his death. There is a lesson to be learned here, perhaps more than one.

Writer/director John Sayles makes it clear with the title and opening minutes of his 1984 film, The brother from another planet, it’s a science fiction movie. It opens with eerie alarms, flashing warnings from instruments in an alien script, and a pilot in a spacesuit desperately trying to control a shaking spacecraft. The ship crashes, ironically, on Ellis Island, where the alien crawls from rising smoke. He is horribly injured, but uses incandescent power to heal and regrow a lost, not-quite-human limb. Pure science fiction.

But as the film goes on, we see that it’s much more than a story about extraterrestrial life and alien technology. Again, there is a lesson to be learned here.

Brother From Another Planet Is Science Fiction, And More

Mid Road The brother from another planet, there’s a brief, almost accidental scene that, at first glance, looks like a stunning sci-fi cliche. Our alien, The Brother, stumbles upon a dog tied to a parking meter, immediately befriends it, and sets it free. We think, of course! Primitive humans enslave, hunt, and cruelly eat other species, unlike aliens, who are advanced enough to know more.

This idea was developed into another sci-fi film about a shipwrecked alien which was released just three months later. The brother from another planet. Halfway through John Carpenter’s movie star man, the visiting alien comes across a dead deer strapped to the trunk of a hunter’s car. The Starman, played by Jeff Bridges in an Oscar-nominated role, uses one of the few miraculous alien resources to bring the stag back to life.

The moral message in this scene from star man is that only a primitive species would harm another harmless species – enslaving, abusing or killing animals is seen here as universal evil. We watch the stag’s resurrection with the Starman’s companion, smiling in approval and admiring the Starman’s benevolent compassion for all life. (But maybe we’re hypocrites, swallowing a superficial message at the moment without realizing that our only loyalty is to our species, or simply to ourselves: would we like the starman to use the one of his seven miracle spheres on a slain deer, or the child dying of cancer at the hospital next door?)

Related: Starman: Why John Carpenter’s Sci-Fi Movie Is One Of The Best Of The ’80s

And so, we think the dog release scene from The brother from another planet is substantially the same. Dogs are people too. But that’s not what drives The Brother, and that’s not what John Sayles is doing with this scene or this movie, although he may have appreciated the fake head. As the film unfolds, we realize that this is a film about the desire for freedom. The brother’s release of the dog isn’t just the release of an oppressed species – it’s overwhelming empathy. It is the wish that he, like the dog, can be freed.

The brother from another planet is a story of freedom

Upon its release in 1984, many critics called The brother from another planet a comedy or a shaggy-dog movie. He certainly has comedic fish-out-of-water moments, and his scenes certainly tend to run much longer than popular standards for concise storytelling today. But none of these style choices best defines The brother from another planet. Like most fine works of art, it is more interested in what it says than what other people would say about it.

There’s a reason the story takes place in Harlem. There’s a reason the story’s hero is only known as The Brother. And there’s a reason The Brother is a black man and his galactic hunters are white, although it’s not as literal as one would first assume. But these racial choices are a calculated visual parallel to real human history. Black experiences in North America began with the opposite of freedom. It took decades of struggle against oppression and a bloody civil war to change that trajectory, and the repercussions of those wrongdoings still affect us today.

For many years before the American Civil War, there were people who cared deeply about the enslavement and murder of other human beings because they looked different. They were not soldiers or politicians, just those who devoted themselves to the proposal made later by President Lincoln, that all men are created equal. These church ministers, business owners and ordinary farmers ran a secret network called the Underground Railroad, which attempted to bring runaway slaves to safety at a time when capturing and returning runaway slaves was a extremely lucrative and brutal activity.

The brother from another planet is a sci-fi take on a fraction of what black men, women and children felt trying to escape slavery in the mid-1800s, Watching the film in our contemporary setting could also shed light on the struggle that very real “aliens” lead through, namely undocumented people, refugees and immigrants who are different types of brothers and sisters from other planets. The film gives us a taste of what it would be like to be a slave or a refugee ourselves. We begin with the deadly risk of escape and learn to survive in a strange world. We feel the fear of being sued and the surprise of unexpected help. Finally, against all odds, we arrive at a new safe house with friends.

Brother From Another Planet Is About Many Kinds Of Freedom

The brilliant twist that John Sayles introduces into The brother from another planet comes with the reason why the brother is considered a slave. Brother is different, but not because of his dark skin. The two hunters search, asking about his feet. When they call it a “three toe”, it carries all the disgust of strong prejudice. The overwhelming difference between them is counted by the toes, and quite possibly by The Brother’s inability to speak. Sayles wisely reminds us that there are many (usually arbitrary) reasons why people look down on others, and that there are many ways we yearn for freedom.

Related: The Best Sci-Fi Movies Led By People Of Color

Freedom from the evil of slavery is just one of the human desires the film focuses on. Another strong theme is freedom from brutal addictions. The brother experiences being robbed by young men at knifepoint, one of whom might be sympathetic or remorseful. When he discovers this young man dead of an overdose, he sees and feels the evil of addiction firsthand, which pushes him, for the first time, to go beyond the stage of the victim and to take action. Even two seemingly random Indiana men who would have been called “yuppies” in 1984 are shown subtly desiring to free themselves from the meaninglessness of their lives.

The possibility of empathy in science fiction

Science fiction crosses the real-world boundaries of what can actually be done, or places that can actually be reached, taking us to places of vision and imagination. But it can also expose what it means to be human and to live in a human world. It very often holds up a mirror of the flaws we had and the ones we still have, and the ways we all still need to grow.

With a subtle look at the evil of slavery in our world and the real need humans had for an Underground Railroad, The brother from another planet reminds us of what happened in our past, what matters today, and allows us to envision – and aim for – a time when our aspirations for freedom will become realities.

The brother from another planet is actually in the public domain, which means you can watch it for free on YouTube below.


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