Brother John Nov 6, 2011 9:30:12 GMT -5
Post by Eddie Love on Nov 6, 2011 9:30:12 GMT -5
A mysterious figure arrives in a small Southern town shortly after the death from cancer of his sister; a passing it’s not possible he was informed of or could have known in advance was coming. The man in question – referred to simply as BROTHER JOHN – quickly rouses the fear and suspicion of the people in the town, white and black alike. Is he some kind of criminal? An international man of mystery? A clandestine agent for the government? Or could he be…something else entirely.
I’m always a little bugged when talking about a film people will say "so-and-so is the only person who can play a particular part." For centuries on the stage different actors have assumed the same roles, it’s a dynamic that informs the art. Having said that, this film is singularly suited to Poitier. It goes beyond being simply a vehicle, the very nature and stature of the star himself is, in some ways, what the film is about.
Like Poitier, John is a figure admired by some whites, yet warily feared by others, a position the actor himself was clearly familiar with. However, after studiously maintaining his role as an exemplar of his race and famously keeping his cool, here Poitier is getting sick of The Man’s bullshit. Perhaps, also in keeping with the star himself, when this screen icon blows off steam, it’s more of a steely, slow burn. (To tangle various metaphors…)
Increasingly though “John” (Poitier) is alienated from the blacks around him as well. He soon finds himself targeted by some hotheads. Indeed, this is the first, and to my recollection, only, film in which Sydney is violently harassed by other black guys. In a scene that echoes IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT he’s run off the road and threatened by a group looking to administer a beat-down and who hurl the “n-word” at him. For once, it’s not just the local crackers who are out to get him.
When John does have a physical conflict with a white cop and basically kicks his ass, it’s a strange moment where the picture seems to stop to deconstruct the violence that’s taking place. It has an almost Zen quality, whereby we in the audience watch John joylessly get the better of the guy who just kind of…takes it. He seems to know that, less than a fight, this is part of a larger power struggle and if he can’t win there’s no point in engaging. John’s young nephew, who’s watching, similarly seems at sea when his visceral vindication is realized while being somehow essentially denied.
The trajectory of Poitier’s preoccupation in this movie shadows Martin Luther King's, murdered three years before its release. He’s moved beyond just the struggle for racial equality in the U.S. and here raises the issue of solidifying a labor coalition of working-class whites and blacks. And – like King – Brother John calls out the war in Vietnam specifically.
If the areas of social concern here are broader, the antagonists that John faces are also more nuanced. The white authority figures that keep tabs on him aren’t drooling crackers with thick Southern accents. In fact, their leader, played by Bradford Dillman, is shown very much as a respectable sort, which makes him a more insidious force than a villain the audience can safely feel at some remove from. This guy could be the lead in his own film, he’s so smooth. The hostility and suspicion John faces is so institutionalized even the “good guys” are its practitioners.
The kindly town doctor who figures out what John is and finally confronts him is played by Will Geer in a fine performance. If the filmmakers had gone with a bigger name – Melvyn Douglas, Edward G. Robinson, Fredric March – all still vital at the time this was made, it may have tipped the film’s hand and wrongly suggested there’s common ground to be taken between the two men, that there’s more of a debate to be had.
Plus Poitier has one of his more interesting romances in this film with a smart, attractive woman from the town played by Beverly Todd. And there’s a decided sexual chemistry between the two, that element is not a part of the star’s character that get’s soft-pedaled here. (Although he’d would have to wait ‘til his scene trapped in a closet with smokin’ hot Persis Khambatta in THE WILBY CONSPIRACY before Poitier got any really hot onscreen action.)
There seemed to be a number of these types of movies / TV episodes from the 70s where we’re not sure if a character is crazy or supernatural and there's a pretentious consideration of what those labels mean. However, BROTHER JOHN is an altogether unique vehicle. You can’t separate the story from the star. It’s a statement from one man, long seen as a symbol, but here saying to the world – “Hey, you all love to hold me up and project your issues onto me. Well, guess what, here's what I really think of you."
This feels like the exhausted star's rebuke to his critics and admirers alike, and his bitter kiss-off to the prior decade.