Brother John (1971)

I was first drawn to it because it was Sidney Poitier (isn’t that enough?) but later flipped through a book–alas, the title escapes me again, hold on, ah, You Gotta See This–and saw that Forest Whitaker named this as one of his favourite movies. This is no faint praise, in my mind, coming from a staggering talent like Whitaker, the kind that sneaks in and punches you in the gut despite your expectations of typecasting or limited role capability from an overweight man with a condition that causes one eyelid to droop unnaturally. But Forest was a bit young to be in this movie (ten at the time) so he’s not really at issue here.*

John Kane (Poitier) is the elder son in the Kane family, who disappeared sometime during his high school career, and is now only seen whenever a family member dies, something noted as peculiar only by local aging white doctor Doc Thomas (Will Geer). On a more social scale, though, his son Lloyd (Bradford Dillman) and Sheriff Orly Ball (Ramon Bieri) are determined to prevent a major unionizing movement at the Hill-Donaldson plant, and suspect that is the real motivation behind John’s sudden re-appearance. Louisa McGill (Beverly Todd) is not concerned with either cause, or any cause, for John’s appearance, simply falling for him as he is, despite the growing theories of Doc Thomas as to John’s intentions–and even nature–and the paranoid beliefs of the white authority figures around town.

In an interesting way, the focus of the movie is indeed on Kane, rather than being used to specifically unite behind a cause in the film, it is first a distant study and eventually an internal one, at least seeping into him through the cracks we begin to see. It’s not much of a secret that there is more than likely something going on with John Kane–strong suspicions abound in viewers that he may be an angel, and it is definitely made out to suggest this. But we see him, if he is, as a man who has turned into this, not always inhabited it. We see regret and loss in him–he wishes he could start a family, perhaps with Louisa, wants to leave a greater mark on the world than simply his name carved into the wall at the school bathroom–but he recognizes the importance of his work.

Poitier is calm, reserved and powerful–exactly as we all seem to know him to be–and here those qualities are sharpened to a fine point; he is imbued with supernatural lack of tension, stress or concern, walking confidently wherever he goes, always knowing what is to come and what he is to do. When his brother-in-law takes him in and the local deputies decide to hassle them, John shows that none of the asinine prejudices of the world are a match for him, but what he does is intended (even if it comes off as slightly off in a vaguely hypocritical fashion…) to promote understanding and eliminate hatred and bias. He’s not always successful, but he tries with everyone he runs across–which is not limited to white people, for Henry Birkart (Paul Winfield, in an unusually negative role) is an undesired element to Louisa, eventually manifesting his jealousy of John with some violence, to which John puts a stop–but not by killing Henry, simply through the same method he uses on the overzealous, racist deputy. Again, the message is a little clouded but I could see the aim, and respect it for that at least. Plus, watching Poitier be a bad ass is always pretty welcome.

It’s not some hidden magical gem, some diamond in the rough, but it’s an interestingly ambiguous film–conceptually!–for the time, and for a name like Poitier. It hints heavily without being explicit (which is a more proper way to address ambiguity than the recent spate of “I’m not going to tell you ANYTHING! Tee hee!” styled films). And of course, there’s a score by none other than Quincy Jones–about which one should never complain. A strong base for the scenes in which it appears, dabbling in things that show its age, but never properly making itself truly dated.

*This doesn’t relate to Forest, but I was trying to match up characters with actors–since I watched this almost a week ago now–and stumbled across a White Nationalist website listing this movie as evil. I feel ill.

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