Friday, March 6, 2009

My Brother’s Wedding, dir. Charles Burnett, 1983

A.O.Scott’s observations on Charles Burnett’s My Brother’s Wedding (1983) on the occasion of its theatrical re-release in 2007 were spot on. He so asserts that “at a moment when the term independent film is taken to refer either to midbudget studio projects anchored by Oscar-soliciting performances or to the aimless navel-gazing of under-stimulated hipsters … Mr. Burnett’s work is an indelible reminder of what real independence looks like.“ Made on an $80,000 budget raised in part by Channel 4, with a host of non-professional actors in the Los Angeles ghetto pre-2002, My Brother’s Wedding also boasts the urgent politics of true independent film.

Everything about this film is enabled by the fact that it wasn’t scrambling for Oscars or box-office, financial, even critical attention. Most impressive is the way that Burnett takes reveals the complexity of his black urban characters, and the troubled social fabric into which they are folded. In a neo-realist aesthetic, Burnett carves out the time for Pierce Mundy (Everette Silas), a post-civil rights urban black guy to saunter down the street and be held up by giggling teenage girls wanting to attract his attention. There is also time for Pierce and his friend Soldier (who cannot stay out of trouble) to wrestle in the front garden of a neighbor – a scene which lovingly demonstrates the tight bond between the two men. And when they are caught in the middle of their playacting by the habitant of the garden, he goes back into the house to get his gun. Again and again throughout the film, characters reach for their guns at the slightest hint of violation of their territory. Even grandfather has the gun ready when he hears a knock at the door. There is no fuss, no swelling music, no rapid editing at such moments, it’s simply a gesture that is repeated as part of the everyday humdrum of life in South Central Los Angeles where the film is set. And it’s a gesture that tells us everything we need to know about the tenor of African-American working-class life.
And like neo-Realism at its best, My Brother’s Wedding is peppered with humour – yet again, I found myself the only one laughing in a theater full of French people. When an obese man visits the Pierce’s family-run dry cleaning business wanting his torn pants sewn back up again. Pierce’s mother examines them from all different angles and there’s clearly no fixing these pants. But she agrees to fix them with the private plan of trashing them, claiming they got lost and giving the man a pair of unclaimed pants. There are also some wonderful telling moments such as, the quietly revealed drama of a bottle of vodka beneath a woman’s chair without a cut to her face.
The film’s central dilemma is also layered with significance. Pierce has promised to be best man at his brother’s wedding and yet it falls the same day as his best friend Soldier’s funeral. Torn between his loyalty to a biological family who alienates and disrespects him, and his deep ties to his buddy and the community about the two of them, his attempt to attend both at once ends up in his not being present at either. But the real tension here is not so much the pull between the two "families," but it is telling of the deeper tensions between generations, and social classes.

What I loved most about the film is that there is nothing aggressive, angry or violent about it. When Spike Lee broke onto the commercial circuit with Do the Right Thing in 1989, I was so disappointed with all the yelling and screaming. It was as if this was the only way that African-American’s express themselves and communicate with each other. The focus on thugs in films such as Boyz n the Hood (1991) and other black urban movies, worlds commonly filled with drugs and violence, has dominated Black American cinema. So what stands out in My Brother’s Wedding, is the depiction of a community that both cares for each other, and creates its own problems and expectations. The camera work is also gentle and, at times, poetic, again so that Pierce and the characters he comes into contact with have a chance to express themselves in ways other than anger. There is an observatory tone to the film which both makes it a pleasure to watch, and means it’s not going to have mass market appeal. The same could be said of Pierce who is gentle and generous, hardworking and loyal, and for these reasons, he wouldn’t last a minute on Spike Lee’s streets.

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