Saturday 15 August 2009

Brother John (1971)

Director: James Goldstone
Star: Sidney Poitier

We're in Hackley in the rural Alabama county of Calawah, where Dr Henry L Thomas is proving behind the opening credits that he can't drive and probably can't even see that well. It's the easiest thing in the world to assume any one of the many fuddy duddy old folk stereotypes, but he only fits one of them: he's a doctor of the old school, dedicated to his patients who he knows inside and out. He's the sort of doctor who nobody calls Doctor Thomas, everyone calls him Old Doc Thomas. He's also sharp as a knife and full of character. We see his bedside manner quick enough: Sarah Gabriel, a local black woman, has been having some pain and he realises that it's a malignant tumour so without any fuss or scaremongering, has her checked into the hospital for the few days she has left.

There's nothing special in all this to us but there is to Old Doc Thomas. He calls his son and the local priest and tells them a story about the Kanes, one that he expects to kick back in very shortly. Young Sarah had a brother, John Kane, that Old Doc Thomas brought into the world and took care of as his physician for sixteen years. At sixteen though, he up and left town and he's been gone for seven years. What makes it really strange is that he only ever comes back for the death of his relatives, relatives that don't know how to contact him and that he doesn't keep in touch with. He just seems to be passing through at the precise moment in time that he needs to and then he's gone again.

So Old Doc Thomas fully believes that when Sarah Gabriel dies, Brother John will mysteriously find himself passing through again, and sure enough he does. He apparently turns up right in the hospital room before Sarah dies and comforts her through her last moments. So what does it all mean? Old Doc Thomas fully believes in the human angle, but is fascinated as to why. His son, though, has other ideas. Initially he believes that he's the professional instigator who's been sent down to spark up the labour dispute at Hill Donaldson, the local industrial complex, but the initial investigation only adds more questions, and so he sees opportunity.

While Brother John is at the wake, Lloyd Thomas and the local sheriff take a look at his hotel room and rummage through his stuff. They find that he's been everywhere, including a lot of places that it would be rather difficult for anyone from the west to go, let alone a man of his colour. He hasn't just been to London, Paris and Frankfurt, but Moscow, Havana and East Berlin, not to mention Saigon, Quito, Dar Es Salaam and who knows where else. He's an educated man but he never finished high school. He has a set of journals but they're all empty. He's a big question mark and he manages to shake up the whole town without actually doing much of anything.

Of course he has a purpose, one which we're not privy to though we know he has a timeframe and we're given hints as to why he's really back in Hackley. Naturally it isn't what anyone expects and I'm not going to spoil it other than by saying that this is really a science fiction story that doesn't look like one and that it's an intriguing take on a concept I've seen elsewhere more than once, not least because it doesn't let us in on the secret until pretty close to the end. And as such films go, it's pretty high on the list, because it refuses to be obvious and it refuses to preach at us. It sets out its characters and its situations and lets us judge, just as John Kane does. It asks us about humanity in the broadest sweeps.

Sidney Poitier is excellent here, but it's a role that really fits him so much to a tee that he doesn't really need to act that much outside of a couple of powerful scenes. He does much of his job here simply by doing what Poitier did best: stand out around those around him. He's always done that, regardless of the film, because of who he is. He stands out amongst white folk because of but not just because of the colour of his skin, whether the the white folk be nuns in Lilies in the Field, a bigoted cop In the Heat of the Night or anywhere in between. He stands out amongst black folk too, because of his demeanour and presence, whether they be rich or poor, aiming upwards or comfortable being downtrodden. He's the perfect choice for this part and yet he doesn't have to do much to fulfil it.

He's backed up by some of the great black actors of the time. Beverly Todd made three films between 1969 and 1971 then retired for over a decade. All three of those films were opposite Poitier, this being the last after The Lost Man and They Call Me Mister Tibbs! Paul Winfield was in The Lost Man too and would go onto both serious black films such as Sounder and Conrack as well as blaxploitation flicks like Trouble Man and Gordon's War. I've seen him plenty of times but surprisingly rarely early on, even though I've seen his debut appearance in The Perils of Pauline.

Zara Cully is magnificent in a short scene as an old teacher who has entered her second childhood and so is stuck a decade. She's best known as the mother on The Jeffersons, and I was surprised to find that she only made five films and I've seen the last three of them (the other two are Sugar Hill and Darktown Strutters). Lincoln Kilpatrick is the local activist Charley Gray, proving once again that he played in the interesting films rather than the famous ones. His most recognisable film is probably Soylent Green.

There are plenty of white actors here too, as Hackley is a progressive town. After all, they're integrated up to the second grade. I was really impressed by Ramon Bieri who is less recognisable to me, but does a great job providing depth to his role as the county sheriff, Orly Ball, without ever falling prey to stereotype. He made more films than Cully but remains memorable for his TV work, appearing in what appears to be every American TV series for four decades. The most obvious part is that of Old Doc Thomas, in which Will Geer sets a tone that Henry Fonda would run with for another couple of decades. He must have impressed here because a year later he'd begin on his long run as his most famous role, the granddad in The Waltons.

What's hardest here is to see what shines the brightest. I'd say it's the story because that's a masterpiece of subtletly that places it high on the list of thoughtful science fiction pictures, though perhaps I should use the dubious term 'speculative fiction' instead as there's no science here at all. It would be an interesting double bill with The Man from Earth. Yet the story is all about the people so it's impossible to look at the story without looking at the people in it. At the end of the day it really doesn't matter what shines brightest. It's a film that I'd recommend to anyone with the single warning that if you watch it, you're likely to think about it and talk about it. It's not something that would easily appeal to most of today's audience, which is a shame because it would mean even more to them.


Julie Ventura Gobbell said...

I think you've hit the nail on the head on each point. I've seen the film 3x & read several reviews. I think this is definitive.

Anonymous said...

I saw the film about thirty years ago and still think of it as one of the best ever. The movie had depth and one of the best endings ever. Excellent review. I recommend it as that is a movie that will stay with you.

Anonymous said...

It's a very strange and thoughtprovoking film. Seeing it in 2024 after so many years ater it was made is even stranger. That mankind has become a million times worse than what's described in passing or as actually shown in the film makes it all the more poignant. Where are we heading? We , mankind, even entire life on earth, truly need an apocalypse