Director: John Sayles (Eight Men Out)
Writers: John Sayles
Stars: Joe Morton ("The Good Wife"), Steve James, Tom Wright, David Strathairn (Good Night and Good Luck)
The Story: A intergalactic refugee with a healing touch crash-lands on Ellis Island, but he’s no "E.T." Because he looks a black man, he winds up in Harlem, where his potential goes mostly unrecognized. Gradually, he find his way in the world, but two “men in black”-style slavecatchers from his home planet are hunting for him…
How it Came to be Underrated: I’m stretching again, since this is a pretty universally beloved movie, amongst those that have seen it. But you won’t see it on many lists of the best American films of the ‘80s, and that’s where I think it needs to be.
Why It’s Great:
- This is it: the movie that made me a film buff. When I was eleven or so, I rented this movie randomly. Then I re-watched it, over and over, before I had to return it. I was blown away. Starting with the wordless 5-mintue sequence where we follow Morton’s crash-landing on Earth, in which we slowly realize who he is, what he can do, and what he’s running from, all without dialogue, I somehow felt that this no-budget oddity was a lot more meaningful than its slicker cousin E.T., though I couldn't yet understand why.
- Who is John Sayles to make a movie about '80s Harlem? Can a middle-class white guy write characters who, for the most part, have less money, less education and a different cultural heritage than he does? Should he? How can he find universal points of identification without ignoring the uniqueness of the world he's portraying? The first inclination is to say: “don’t do it”. At worst, you’re going to offend a lot of people, at best, you’re going to be imitating other voices rather than finding your own. But this movie justifies itself beautifully. (It doesn’t hurt that Sayles empowered local filmmakers along the way, including cinematographer Ernest R. Dickerson, who went on to help Spike Lee make his movies.)
- We’re watching a few weeks in the life of one reborn man, but his journey contains the life of every person —and all of history, for that matter. The structure of the movie follows the same arc as the “hierarchy of needs” described by psychologist Abraham Maslow. One by one, Morton learns to aspire to each level of human experience: first survival, then work, then love, and then, finally, justice.
- The movie gets a lot of comic milage from the tendency of New Yorkers to take umbrage at anybody who doesn’t know the unspoken expectations of their particular subculture. Morton ironically fits in because he’s in a city where they treat everybody like an alien.
If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Sayles is one of the best filmmakers of his generation and he’s made over a dozen great movies. My other favorites are The Return of the Secaucus Seven and Lone Star.
How Available Is It?: There’s a dvd with a nice featurette and commentary featuring Sayles and producer Maggie Renzi.
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