Someone has heard their prayers.
Looking into the rumblings of a small southern town on the edge of the civil rights era, Brother John ends up a strangely ambiguous waste of Sidney Poitier's talents and an acceptable, if unremarkable, digital disc presentation by Columbia Tri-Star.
Facts of the Case
The town of Hackley, Calawah County, Alabama, is an increasingly tense place to be. The local manufacturing plant is enduring a strike by the black workforce, led by Charley Gray (Lincoln Kilpatrick), and both the country boy sheriff, Orly Ball (Ramon Bieri), and the ambitious local prosecutor, Lloyd Thomas (Bradford Dillman), are on edge. Keeping a sharp eye out for outside civil rights instigators and labor organizer agitators, they are immediately suspicious when John Kane (Sidney Poitier) appears in town.
Though born and bred in Hackley, Kane disappeared as a teenager without explanation, mysteriously reappearing only moments before the death of close family members. This time, after the funeral of his mother, Kane stays in town for a few days. Friends old and new strike up their acquaintances with John Kane, but Kane reveals little of who he is, where he has come from, or where he is going. Even his girlfriend, Louisa MacGill (Beverly Todd), can only wonder at her man. This drives the authorities crazy as they frantically try to solve the puzzle of John Kane, though the man who brought him into the world, Doc Thomas (Will Geer) dimly suspects Kane is not entirely of this world.
When Brother John has an actor of quality at his profound prime and the script clearly aspires to serious social commentary, the ultimate failure of the film is made that much more painful. While back of the box claims Brother John is a "compelling film about the mysteries and prejudices of a small Alabama town," the claim is only partly right.
Flesh and blood Brother John is indeed compelling, thanks to the awesome controlled intensity of his actor. At the time of filming, Sidney Poitier (The Defiant Ones, In the Heat of the Night, Sneakers) was in his salad days as a rock solid actor of passion and power who blazed a path for others to follow, and in Brother John, he does not disappoint. When Brother John graces your screen, he commands your attention simply by his presence, made perfectly palpable by his carefully limited words and judicious actions. Very limited and decidedly judicious, mind you, to the point that you sift through every moment in the hopes of finding dusty golden clues to John's inner truth. That you find so little is a testament both to Poitier's power of self-control and the frustrating inadequacy of the celluloid Brother John.
Though the film continually points out the impossible coincidences, unexplained gifts, and mysterious gaps that form the puzzle of Brother John, none of these many questions is answered. Perfectly appropriate, if the intention is to provoke the audience into assembling their own interpretation from the raw building blocks scattered throughout Brother John, but positively infuriating when the puzzle pieces are intentionally kept from the audience until very nearly the end, when Doc Thomas voices his own speculations. Even then, the audience is still denied the ability to make an informed judgment as to whether some, all, or none of the guesses is not right, nor is there a reasoned basis for alternative theories aside from rank speculation.
Aside from the enigma of Brother John, the audience might expect an indictment, special insight, or some pointed commentary on the bitter racial stew on the verge of exploding in this small Alabama town. This is a reasonable assumption, given Sidney Poitier's cinematic pedigree, but again, Brother John lets us down. Yes, the racial attitudes of the townspeople are on display, in word as in deed, but that could hardly be avoided even if it had been tried without revisionism on a massive scale. What is missing is something new, or uniquely powerful, or intensely personal in the experience.
The racial prejudice, suspicion of outsiders, abusive law enforcement, modest antipathy to unions, and other facets depicted in Brother John are neither unique, presented in detail, nor painted with any passion. This is all simply a shallow sea for Brother John to sail through, trailing ambiguity in his wake. If this bland and glacial film is the result, then you may very well wonder why Brother John was made.
Hidden by the long shadow of Sidney Poitier, other cast members breathe life into their smaller roles. Grandpa Walton, err, I mean Will Geer (The Waltons) is as genial and folksy a country doctor as you ever would wish to meet, and Paul Winfield (Presumed Innocent, The Terminator, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan) is a perfectly creepy unwanted suitor for the calmly self-assured Beverly Todd.
The anamorphic transfer, reportedly remastered in high definition, has inconsistent quality, likely due to the source material. Scene to scene, and sometimes even shot to shot, the level of defects and grain can vary noticeably, and some scenes have a gauzy, whitish cast. The blacks could do with a deeper, solid tone and the muted colors could use a jolt as well. The Dolby Digital stereo sound felt more like an unremarkable mono mix, unfortunately limiting the quality of Quincy Jones's musical contributions.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The extra content is limited to a pack of trailers for Brother John, A Raisin In The Sun, and To Sir, With Love. Quite the pity that again Columbia TriStar includes so little extra content on a catalog title. Brother John cries out for explanation and context, since the film gives us little of either.
As a quiet, mysterious opportunity to examine the admirable talent of Sidney Poitier, Brother John may have a small claim upon your time. However, given the many other unqualified jewels in Poitier's resume, less than ardent Poitier disciples may wish to look elsewhere. Technically adequate but overpriced ($25 list), rent if you like but purchase with caution.
Guilty of missing an opportunity to milk the acting wisdom of Poitier to better effect, Brother John may find forgiveness with only minor penance.
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