Every year it’s the same thing: the stepchild that is February tromps down the stairs, announces that it wants to be called by its non-government name for the next 28 days, and Black History Month begins anew. It is a time when black institutions are to be celebrated, which is good because black folks possess tons of institutions. Of them all, we hold our cinematic ones extremely high: The Color Purple, Malcolm X, Coming to America, Roots…the list is long, but earned. We take this canon very seriously. When any of these movies comes on, everything must stop, like the playing of an anthem or “Taps”. Such fare both feeds off and informs our culture, standing somewhere in the space between white and black engagement. It is, outside of music, the way in which most white Americans come to know black people at all, seeing as how at 13% of the population, we can’t be everywhere.
And yet every year, to my constant and recurring dismay, no one ever talks about the blackest film ever: Sidney Poitier’s mystery/drama Brother John.
In 1971 Sidney Poitier opted to produce and star in Brother John at the height of not only his acting powers, but the height of his popularity, which even at the end of the civil rights era, were profound. Poitier was not the first black person to receive an Oscar (shout out to Hattie McDaniel), but he was the first black person to win a Best Actor Oscar and he did it the year before Malcolm or Martin died, during a time when America was deep in the throes of legalized racism. This is the actor who, starring alongside Tony Curtis in The Defiant Ones (1958) arguably jumpstarted the Magical Negro trope in popular cinema. Poitier was pretty much the only black actor receiving major film roles in the late 60s. He was involved with civil rights. Three years after Brother John came out Poitier would become one of the few black people to be knighted, and not one of the honorary ones, so that’s Sir Sidney Poitier, if you please. Given the freedom to make any film, he decided to do Brother John, and his intention shows in every frame in which he is present.
Poitier plays John Kane – the titular “Brother John” – a mysterious figure who shows up in his small and barely desegregated Alabama hometown whenever someone in his family dies, an angel of death who comes and goes with a whisper and no information about where he’s been or what he’s been doing. No one calls him, no one sends him word…he just shows up, then leaves. The stage for the film is set when his sister Sarah dies and, once again, he shows up at her deathbed (“I was just passing through”). Unfortunately for him, because of boiling tensions in the town over black workers’ attempts to unionize drizzled over the every day racism that persists, John becomes the subject of scrutiny and harassment by local law enforcement who fear he might be an agitator. The fact that he keeps a journal written in many languages, has no clear source of income, and has a passport to not only dozens of countries, but places virtually impossible for an American to access at the end of the 1960s (let alone a black man), only makes him more suspicious. Only the old town doctor suspects that there is more to Brother John, that in all his comings and goings he has come one final time to not only oversee the passing of another family member, but to herald the end of the world. Doc Thomas believes that Brother John may literally be an angel of death, come to weigh man’s sins like a suit-wearing Anubis on Judgement Day.
There are more stereotypes of black people in American than are dreamt of in your strip-mall riddled suburbs: the rapping thug, the grinning coon, the emasculating Sapphire, the ravaging Mandingo. All of these and more are wrought from a history of perennial white fear. The character of Brother John speaks to a particular white fear as well: he is the epitome of a fear of black superiority. One could argue that all black stereotypes stem from this primal fear of black superiority, since all of them are ultimately attempts to package even the so-called benefits of blackness into boxes of control and unworthiness. Almost all of the blaxploitation films that would follow Brother John (and nearly all of them do) cater to these stereotypes in some way, even as they attempt to upend them. Brother John goes another way before the need to go another way becomes apparent. It doesn’t upend stereotypes. It all but ignores them, and when one must be introduced, it is shown to come from a clear place of irrationality, from beings struck dumb or blind by their own complexes, both white and black. Poitier’s John doesn’t always speak when spoken to, especially to white people, regardless of their position, his eyes mulling whether or not they deserve an answer. John doesn’t just carry an air of superiority; he is inexplicably and unarguably superior. His clipped tone borders on the robotic, but the signature Poitier lilt remains, when he deigns to speak at all. He literally upends the concept of white supremacy by presenting a flawless black being, not with any otherworldly flourish, but by simply being the civil and quiet eye of the storm that is everyone else’s poor response to his natural grace. The more reasonable and Zen-like John presents himself, the more anxious and racist the world around him becomes.
Poitier’s infamous slap scene from In the Heat of the Night is followed up here by a full-blown ass-whuppin’ of a racist sheriff. Later, he presages what would become a blaxploitation staple as he singlehandedly dismantles a gang of drunk homies while protecting his woman. All of this he does without taking off his tie or with an ounce of trash talking. Released one month before Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song, three months before Shaft, and a year before Superfly, Poitier’s John taps into the same thirst for masculine hero archetypes as its blaxploitation brethren, but without the politically nullifying baggage. It is a black machismo you don’t have to apologize for. In that respect, I suppose John Kane is an agitator, except he only exposes the world for what it is, not tries to change it to his way of thinking. The temptation to paint him as a figure of respectability politics is great, but then you realize that John isn’t trying to get white people to accept him. He simply wishes to be left alone to be his best black self. It is a thing all black people ultimately want: freedom to be one’s self, unmolested by the antagonism and fears – and perhaps presence altogether – of white agenda.
Brother John poses powerful questions: What would the fate of the world be if those who were most oppressed by it were empowered to level judgement? Given the ability to go anywhere and see anything that mankind was up to, would such arbiters place their thumbs on the scale in favor of the world’s seemingly endless potential for naked avarice, or would they opt for the weighing dish heaped with love and kindness? What if the potential of mankind isn’t as equally good as it is measurably bad? I imagine it was these kinds of deeply philosophical questions – no matter how artfully rendered – that kept white critics in harrumphing coughing fits and black audiences pining for more escapist fare. In 1971 black people were fresh off several assassinations of people who stood firm in their interests and were starting to resign themselves to the reality that desegregation without enforceability was still segregation. Brother John did not beat what audiences it was able to muster over the head with its wisdom, but it was too much for people to transpose themselves into. Poitier perhaps did his job too well.
Poitier wanted to do Brother John but America needed him to do Brother John. And then no one went to see it.
Brother John has it all, and does all things well: civil rights, racism, classism, toxic masculinity, black love, house parties, homecooked funeral rites. You haven’t celebrated Black History Month properly until you’ve seen this film. Brother John is a perfect black film, both for its time and now, generating even more resonance as we walk every day in a world aflame with hate and neglect.