If you want to know how many Americans engage with theological questions such as “What does it mean to be human?” and “How should I/we relate to the other?” you need to go to the movies. In particular, you need to see one of the many alien sci-fi films that have been coming out in the past year. If you’ve seen District 9 or Avatar, you know that both films tell stories about a human becoming an alien. These films do not contain your typical “Aliens = bad; humans = good” set-up so often seen in the alien invasion film or the space opera fantasy. In both films, the Us (humans) vs. Them (aliens) dynamic breaks down when the protagonist’s biological humanity comes into question.
District 9 and Avatar also feature astute observations about how society categorizes, marginalizes, and oppresses those deemed “other.” In most alien sci-fi films, humanity comes together and projects otherness entirely onto the evil aliens. When humanity comes under attack by extra-terrestrials, those oppressed because of race, sexuality, class, and gender regain their humanity. They certainly are human when compared to those evil aliens! Thus most alien sci-fi films miss the chance to question societal treatment of the other. The set-up will not allow it. However, in District 9 and Avatar, the lines between good and evil, human and alien are blurred. Mistreatment of the aliens takes on a different light when the protagonist is an alien. The viewer readily identifies with the protagonist and may begin to note the real-life parallels to the protagonist’s plight. Issues such as immigration, imperialism, and social segregation spring to the fore. By placing the viewer in the shoes of the protagonist-turned-other, the films encourage the viewer to question the whole dynamic of Us vs. Them. They also provide an empathetic experience of seeing the self in the other.
An earlier and lesser known film from 1984, John Sayles’s The Brother from Another Planet, draws up a blueprint for this kind of sci-fi film. Sayles, an independent filmmaker who has been funding and distributing his own films for the last thirty years, is not shy when it comes to socio-political critique. Working within a variety of genres, Sayles’s films often address the complexities of living in communities in which “Us” and “Them” are slippery categories. Characters in Sayles’s films must grapple with issues of race, gender, sexuality, violence, drugs, and injustice. The untidy, unresolved nature of his narratives grates against the sensibilities of viewers who go to the movies to turn their brains off. It also reflects the ambiguity Sayles sees in the real-life issues presented by his films. The Brother from Another Planet is no exception. Though it did not earn him an Oscar nomination for original screenplay, as Sayles’s Lone Star and Passion Fish eventually would in the 1990s, the Brother’s story raises pressing theological questions and social issues. If “Us” and “Them” are fluid categories, then we must reconsider what it means to be human or alien. The question of how to relate to the other would become, “Am I an other?”
The Brother from Another Planet follows a non-speaking, black-skinned, alien slave (Joe Morton) who crash-lands on Earth in the course of escaping from a pair of white-skinned, alien, bounty hunters (David Strathairn and John Sayles). The escaped slave, “Brother,” gets so named when he wanders into a Harlem bar and the bar’s regulars cannot get so much as a name out of him. Sayles describes the Brother’s situation: “How alienated can you get? Not only are you out of a job and out of a home in New York City, and black, but you’re not even from the damn planet and you can’t tell anybody about it—or you don’t want to tell anybody about it” (quoted in John Sayles: Interviews, Univ. of Mississippi Press, 1999; p. 76). Sayles drops the viewer into the shoes of the most alienated, marginalized character he can imagine. Seeing through the Brother’s eyes, viewers begin to see the Us in Them and the Them in Us. The categories slide into one another, while their supposed opposition becomes murkier and murkier. Conventional definitions of the human and the alien no longer suffice.
Brother becomes the testing ground for what is both human and alien. Certainly, Brother is an alien, since he is not from Earth. He also has many supernatural qualities, such as the ability to heal persons and things with his touch and the ability to remove his eyeball and use it as a recording device. These are things humans cannot do; thus he is alien. However, the viewer quickly recognizes many qualities in Brother that are strikingly human, by which I mean, qualities that seem to be shared by most humans. For one, Brother looks like he could be a human being, and, for the most part, people look at him as such in the film. The Brother also seems to share basic human emotions, such as fear, happiness, wonder, etc. His eyes light up in awe when he sees the vivid oranges, reds, and pinks of his first sunrise. Brother also has familiar human needs and cravings, such as the need for food and desire for sex.
And finally, Brother has empathy and acts on it. This trait moves beyond basic human traits; it is what most religions prescribe for the lives of their believers. Empathy is a virtue. It calls on the part of humanity that is capable of moral feeling and action. So to suggest that the alien Brother is sensitive and empathetic toward the other is to say that the Brother is capable of what humanity strives for—moral excellence. Brother’s empathy paints Brother not just as human, but as a good person.
This natural predisposition to empathy becomes apparent quickly in the film. For instance, when Brother hops on one foot (the other was injured in the crash) into the empty Ellis Island immigration facility at the beginning of the film, he hears the shouts, cries, and anxious voices of persons who had at one time passed through the facility. The experience is not something that the Brother seeks out. At first, Brother hears the voices of the immigrants by touching a column and a bench within the facility. However, when Brother tries to escape the voices by withdrawing his touch from specific parts of the building, the manifold voices come from the ceiling, from the wall, the floor, the windows, the chandeliers. Sayles jumps to a first-person camera view as Brother hops around in a circle so the viewer can literally look through the Brother’s frantic eyes. As the voices reach a climax, Brother throws back his head and sends forth a silent scream. Unearthing the buried human pain from the building, Brother feels the pain himself and screams with them.
Brother also demonstrates empathy by giving a listening ear to those who need it. Through his silent, assuring presence, he becomes whatever the person speaking to him needs him to be. For instance, the singer he hooks up with for one night muses, “How come I like you so much? You could be anybody.” Perhaps that is exactly why she does like him! He can be an exciting lover that whisks her away from the drudgery of touring and the sleaziness of bar owners, at least for one night. However, Brother does not always accept the passive roles projected onto him.
The passive empathy becomes active when Brother stumbles across the body of a boy who has overdosed on drugs lying in a trash heap. After using the boy’s needle and experiencing the highs and lows of the drug himself, Brother sets out the next day to track down the source of the drugs. After some detective work, Brother finds himself in the office of the drug kingpin (Edward Baran). First, Brother allows the kingpin to experience the effect that the drugs have on society. He places his eyeball in the kingpin’s hand, thereby replaying in the kingpin’s mind the visual memory Brother has of the teen’s dead body. Then Brother kills him by holding a plastic bag over the man’s face. In this strangely violent moment, Brother is attempting to stop the drug trade and the abuse of the marginalized who are sucked into lives controlled by drugs.
The murder is an especially complicated action to judge in terms of the brother’s human and alien qualities; however, it is exactly this kind of test-case that proves that definitions of human and alien are hard to pin down. Who is the human and who is the alien in the case of the kingpin and the Brother? Both kill inhumanely: one indirectly; the other directly. The kingpin appears to be motivated by money and the Brother appears to be motivated by a desire to end injustice. Is it possible to describe one motivation as human and one as inhuman?
The Brother is an alien, an other, but so is every character in the film to someone else in the film. The whites are other to the blacks, blacks to whites, Latinos to whites and blacks, etc. These attitudes are conveyed with statements throughout the film, such as “Haitians have diseases, voodoo germs” and “White folks get stranger all the time.” The color of skin is a real boundary to many in the film, and otherness is drawn along other boundaries as well. When Brother first walks into the community bar in Harlem and refuses to talk, the men at the bar throw out many suggestions as to what kind of other the Brother is. For example: “The man is deaf, the man is crazy, or the man is a wino.” When faced with a person who acts differently or strangely, the default reaction is to categorize rather than to empathize. For the most part, Brother does not have this default reaction. Brother continually crosses the boundaries that most people in society follow.
Though Brother cannot speak or refuses to speak in the film, Sayles gives Brother’s experiences a voice in the film, and, through Brother’s experiences, gives voice to the undocumented, enslaved, homeless, unemployed, impoverished, racially-profiled, addicted, and marginalized in America. The viewer shares these experiences by seeing through the alien’s eyes. By drawing Brother as the most alienated of the marginalized in society, Sayles makes an analogy between the traditional sci-fi dichotomy of the human and the alien, and the very real American cultural dichotomies of citizen and illegal, “white” and “colored,” rich and poor, and so on. Then by breaking down the boundaries between the human and alien, Sayles invites the viewer to wonder about the analogous social dichotomies. Do such boundaries distract from or even propagate injustices to the marginalized? How can I move beyond such categories to walk with those who are marginalized? Are the questions of “What does it mean to be human?” and “How should I/we relate to the other?” helpful questions for living empathetic lives. The self-conscious twisting of the questions into one—“Am I an other?”—does not seem enough either. We need a question that reflects a greater scope of relationality: How should I/we relate to all of creation?
Tyler Beane is currently pursuing an MA in Systematic Theology at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minnesota.