Director: Charles Burnett
2007 Chicago International Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
The CIFF has, for more than a decade, presented a program called Black Perspectives that brings the stories and work of Africans and their descendants in other countries to the attention of the movie-going public. This is an important program for Chicago because it helps the city’s large African and African American community access their often-hidden heritage in filmmaking. The program helps the rest of us recognize the legacy of great films this community has produced.
One of the most outstanding African American filmmakers working today is Charles Burnett. His name is barely a blip in the minds of movie-goers of all races and ethnicities, and that’s a real crime. Burnett has created some of the most original portrayals of the lives and culture of the African American community available today. However, like most independent filmmakers, he is chronically short of funding and distribution options. Therefore, it was a great service for the CIFF to revive one of his earlier films, a thoroughly independent affair populated with amateur actors and family members called My Brother’s Wedding.
For days now, I’ve confused the name of this film in my head, calling it “My Brother’s Keeper.” This mistake isn’t only the product of my aging mind. It goes pretty much to the heart of this film’s central dilemma. Pierce Mundy (Everett Silas) is 30 years old, lives at home with his parents, and works at their dry cleaning business in a poor section of Los Angeles. His failure to launch stems from training in a line of work (heavy equipment operator) that had more applicants than jobs and his own immaturity. He doesn’t have a girlfriend and looks forward to the day he can knock around with his ne’er-do-well best friend Soldier (Ronnie Bell), due to be released from prison in a couple of weeks. When Soldier returns, Pierce faces a difficult choice: will he choose to support his real brother or his best friend, the “brother” whose keeper he has always tried to be?
Pierce’s mother (Jessie Holmes) is a no-nonsense matriarch who, nonetheless, puts very little pressure on Pierce to get out and make something of his life. She puts up with the random wrestling matches her husband picks with Pierce in the back of the shop and only instructs Pierce to visit his grandparents and see that they get their medication and any other help they might need. Her older son Wendell (Dennis Kemper) is her pride—a lawyer engaged to marry Sonia (Gaye-Shannon Burnett, the director’s wife), a lawyer from a well-to-do family.
Pierce despises Sonia and her family. He doesn’t feel comfortable in their middle-class milieu and takes every opportunity to insult Sonia. When he is compelled to have dinner with their family, he accuses them of being crooks and exploiters; the only person he treats with respect is their Latino maid. It is pretty apparent, however, that Pierce’s sense of aimlessness, inferiority when compared with Wendell and Sonia’s social class, and loyalty to the ’hood are affecting his behavior rather than any strong social convictions.
Soldier does return, and he and Pierce wrestle and run through the streets like 10-year-old boys playing hooky from school. When the pair reaches Soldier’s home, Soldier embraces his mother and father with warmth and sincerity, promising that he is home for good and won’t get sent away again. Unfortunately, Pierce’s attempts to find Soldier a job have been unsuccessful. One prospective employer says it’s too bad Soldier is getting out: “He’s one fellow they should have locked up and thrown away the key.” Predictably, Soldier returns to carousing, even shocking Mrs. Mundy by using her store when he thought she wouldn’t be around and lying on newly cleaned clothes to have sex with his latest conquest. This funny scene has Soldier call to Pierce to bring him and his lady a glass of water while they are in flagrante. Pierce’s apparent nonchalance signals that this isn’t unusual behavior for Soldier.
In an unexpected twist, Soldier is killed in a car accident. His funeral is scheduled for the same day as Wendell and Sonia’s wedding, for which Pierce is to act as best man. Pierce clearly would rather skip the wedding, but his mother is furious to have him own up to his family responsibilities. Pierce pathetically tries to get Sonia to reschedule the wedding. Then he has hopes the funeral can be postponed, but out-of-town relatives are coming in. His choice, like his life, is muddled. In trying to be both brothers’ keeper, he fails them both.
This film clearly was made on a shoestring in real locations that give the film the breath of life. Some of the film’s humor comes from a teenage girl who hangs out at the dry cleaners talking to Pierce about her “stomach” (aka, menstrual) pains and asking Pierce to go with her to the prom in two years, when she’s old enough to have a prom. This young girl is a real natural in her awkward flirtation and baldfaced resentment at not being taken seriously.
Another humorous scene has two men enter the shop to try to rob it. Mrs. Mundy, a cool customer, reaches for her gun under the counter, but never has to show it. She just shoots a warning gaze at the pair, and they take off. Hilariously, the scene continues in the getaway car, as a hoochie girl and her boyfriend complain that they were counting on that money and give these sad sacks a very hard time.
You can’t say any of the “actors” give a performance. Their line readings are flat and stilted. But because they know these characters, are these characters, the film is rich in atmosphere. Silas and Holmes, in particular, anchor this film with their son/mother relationship that’s as true as life.
Few directors of any race or ethnicity are able to tell stories that bring an entire community alive. Burnett has a very different take on similar territory that Spike Lee explores. His is largely apolitical, more interested in culture than outright polemics. Nonetheless, in his simply complex tales, he makes his points about the place of African Americans in the larger society.