Saturday, September 15, 2007

Ain't We Lucky We Got 'Em

(Charles Burnett, US, 1983, 81 mins.)


He has a very romantic view of the have-nots.
--Mrs. Mundy (Jessie Holmes) on her son

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** *****

Only a few minutes into My Brother's Wedding, and my childhood be-
gan to flash before my eyes. Though Charles Burnett made the film in
the 1980s, it conjured up visions of the African-American sitcoms I used
to watch in the 1970s, namely Sanford and Son, Good Times, and What's Happening. That isn't a backhanded compliment, and Burnett's second feature doesn't play like a network comedy. It's just that the story re-
volves around a working class family, and it's frequently quite funny. After the lyrically gritty Killer of Sheep, I wasn't expecting something so light.

Inspired by Britain's Steptoe and Son, Sanford centered on Watts junk dealer Fred (Redd Foxx) and his 31-year-old son, Lamont (Demond Wil-
son). Similarly, My Brother's Wedding pivots on 30-year-old Pierce (Ev-
erett Silas), who works in his family's Watts drycleaners. Lamont lived at home and so does Pierce--who's built just like Good Times' Jimmy Walker.

"You big dummy!"
Though basic-
ally a decent guy, his moth-
er (the hilar-
ious Jessie Holmes) razzes him constantly. His newspaper-reading, be-
spectacled buppy brother, Wendell (Den-
nis Kemper), is engaged to fel-
low attorney Sonia (Gaye Shannon-Burnett), who comes from an affluent family, while Pierce has been seeing a married woman on the sly. His best friend, Sol-
dier (Ronnie Bell), is an ex-con. Only Pierce treats him with any respect.

This isn't the South Central of Boyz N the Hood or Training Day. For
all his faults, Pierce is neither a pusher nor a drug user. If anything, he's the glue that holds his neighborhood together. It's just that no one ever notices. Soldier hasn't been much of a son to his mother, but Pierce vis-
its her regularly, and she treats the attentive young man as a surrogate.

Then there's the elderly couple down the street (it wasn't clear whether they were grandparents or family friends). Everyday, Pierce makes sure they take their medication and helps out with more delicate matters, such as bathing. Like his parents, they take his assistance for granted. Yet without it, these frail, possibly senile seniors surely would've kicked the bucket ages ago. That's all well and good, but Pierce is no saint. Aside from the fact that he's been stepping out with another man's woman and associates with known felons, he's an aimless wanderer with a big mouth.

Pierce can't stand his brother's uptight fiancée and often lets her know, and when no one else is around, the glamorous Sonia insults him back. (She shields her mean side from the other Mundys.) When the two fami-
lies meet for a pre-wedding dinner, Pierce hurls insults at the lot of them--
with the exception of their Latino maid, one of his beloved "have-nots."

Not long after that dinner, tragedy strikes and the humor evapor-
ates, but My Brother's Wed-
ding doesn't feel like two movies in one. Death, when it arrives, doesn't seem particularly surprising. A man like Pierce can look after friends and family to the best of his ability, but he's no miracle worker. And that's the irony of his situation, really. On one side, he's surrounded by "heath-
ens," like Soldier; on the other by pious churchgoers, like his mother. It's fortunate, then, that he can always wrestle with his father when he needs to blow off some steam. Or enjoy a little hooch with Soldier's mom.

Unlike Killer of Sheep, My Brother's Wedding was shot in color, but Bur-
nett uses music just as artfully. While other African-American films and TV shows of the time moved to the beat of funk and disco--see Quincy Jones's great Sanford and Son theme--there's a little doo wop here, a little gospel there, and some heartfelt acapella singing at the beginning and the end.

Throughout, his largely non-professional cast rises to the occasion repeat-
edly. While I wouldn't call the acting great, Burnett knows how to work around their limitations. Most scenes are short, and exposition is kept to a minimum. So, some line readings are a little flat, but the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. These are charismatic people--especially the rotund gent with the torn trousers--and everyone gets the chance to shine.

If anything, My Brother's Wedding is even funnier than Sanford and Son, Good Times, or What's Happening. I don't mean to disparage pro-
grams that brought me such joy as a kid, but like most sitcoms, they could be predictable (and that's to say nothing of the penthouse dwellers of The Jeffersons). Burnett's targets may be similar--shiftless sons, judgmental parents--but the combination of real people, authentic locations, and higher-stakes situations only makes the humor that much richer.

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** *****
Keepin' your head above water,
Making a wave when you can.

--"Good Times" (1974)

Previously denied a proper theatrical release, My Brother's Wedding
opens at SIFF Cinema (321 Mercer St.) on Friday, 9/21. According to
SIFF, "This 2007 director's cut will screen in HDCam and will be accom-
panied by a brand-new short Burnett film, the Hurricane Katrina-themed  
Quiet as Keep." For more information, please click here or call 206-633-
7151. Distributor Milestone adds that My Brother's Wedding is "com-
ing in 11/13/07 as part of Killer of Sheep: The Charles Burnett Col-
lection." Images from Milestone, Newsday, and The Village Voice.

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