Alien as Immigrant: The Brother From Another Planet

Alien immigrants and refugees have been around in movies since It Came From Outer Space(1953). There, though, the aliens were just on Earth temporarily, to repair their space ship. Later we’d see them coming to Earth as permanent refugees in District 9, the Alien Nation franchise, The Coneheads, Mork and Mindy and others.

For some people it’s an unsatisfying metaphor. I’ve read arguments that by focusing on discrimination against the aliens (such as the Newcomers of Alien Nation) films ignore that in real life having a new group to discriminate against doesn’t make old discrimination go away. Irish immigration to America generated lots of bigotry ā€” the Irish were considered about one level above blacks, maybe ā€” but racism didn’t disappear. And many of the Irish soon embraced racism, aligning themselves with WASPsby showing they hated the same people. Some Italian immigrants did the same.

Another criticism (also leveled at the X-Men As Minority trope) is that it’s offensive to take aliens who are literally nonhuman and present them as the counterparts of human refugees ā€” isn’t this exactly how xenophobes see immigrants, as something less than human? Watching John Sayles’ 1984 film THE BROTHER FROM ANOTHER PLANET, I wonder if making the immigrant black weakens that argument at all (I have no opinion on that myself).

The Brother (Joe Morton), an escaped ET slave, crashes to Earth in New York Harbor, then climbs out on Ellis Island. Human except for his alien feet, he steals clothes and wanders through the Big Apple, ending up in Harlem. Mute unsure how to fit in, unclear about our culture, he’s empathic enough to understand other people. And he wins a job when he demonstrates a psychic ability to heal machines. Slowly he begins to make a place for himself, but hot on his heels comes two slave hunters (one of them director John Sayles, who can project a surprisingly nasty presence onscreen).

There’s a moment that hits me as much creepier now than it did on earlier viewings, when Sayles demands one black guy who’s being uncooperative show him his green card. The black dude informs Sayles his family have been American for centuries so STFU.

The film is good but flawed. The plotline of the Brother (as he’s mute, he never gives his name) busting a drug ring feels like it wandered in from a 1970s blacksploitation film. The fight scenes with the slavers feel more comical than they should.

On the plus side, this is less about the politics of immigration than the emotional experience. The Brother doesn’t know anyone, doesn’t know the rules, is terrified of making a mistake; when he sees a crucifix he assumes it’s a representation of how Earth punishes people which doesn’t make him feel at ease. Slowly, even without speaking, he develops friendships, begins to fit in and makes himself a home here. I don’t know if any of that makes the Alien As Immigrant aspect more palatable (I tried looking online, but didn’t find much commentary), but it works for me.

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Filed under Movies

2 responses to “Alien as Immigrant: The Brother From Another Planet

  1. Pingback: No, an imminent alien invasion is a GOOD thing! | Fraser Sherman's Blog

  2. Pingback: I was slightly less than today years old when I learned the term “ethnogothic” | Fraser Sherman's Blog

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