New DVD Review: Charles Burnett's My Brother's Wedding
Attached to Milestone's new (and long-awaited) release of Charles Burnett's 1977 masterpiece Killer of Sheep, Milestone included Burnett's sophomore effort, his 1983 My Brother's Wedding. Killer of Sheep has been heralded (justly so - it is one of the greatest American movies ever), but little seen. My Brother's Wedding, however, has been equally unseen but also largely unpraised, unlike the better known Killer.
My Brother's Wedding continues much of Killer of Sheep's neorealism aimed at the non-stereotypical aspects of life in African-American Los Angeles. But My Brother's Wedding shifts focus from Killer of Sheep's spotlight on the struggling working-class to a focus higher in the classes. Pierce Mundy, the handsome protagonist, is the scion of a family rapidly moving into the upper classes - his parents run a thriving laundromat, a landmark of their neighborhood, and are prominent supporters of the local church. But they aim even higher, and his elder brother Wendell is an attorney with a flourishing practice. Wendell plans to solidify his rise with a upcoming marriage into a wealthy, prominent and cultured family - who are quite similar to Huxtables in the 1984 Cosby Show. Wendell and Pierce's parents eagerly plan for this upcoming wedding and put pressure on Pierce, who has preferred to remain a truck driver and assistant in the laundromat to pursuing white collar professional success, to pursue further education and a "good" marriage - a good marriage clearly being defined as one like that of his elder brother.
Pierce, however, is alone in this family of being dubious of the costs of this social climb. He is attracted to the lifestyle of his friend Soldier, who is released from prison during the course of the movie. Soldier has a widely-held reputation of being "trouble", even though he is from a once-respected, though now declining, family. Though Pierce is repeatedly propositioned by an obnoxious and immature 16-year old girl throughout the course of the movie, Soldier clearly attracts much attention from many beautiful and more sophisticated women. Soldier acts as an object of wish-fulfillment for Pierce, who goes so far as to allow Soldier to secretly use the laundromat as a love-nest (even though it would make more sense for Pierce himself to use the laundromat that way - but Pierce remains almost pre-sexual in avoiding mature relationships). Still, the pull on Pierce of community responsibility is strong and he avoids participation in Soldier's outlaw lifestyle except by vicarious observation.
Money grubbing social climbing and the outlaw life of the street seem at first glance to be the sole options open to Pierce. His earlier desires of remaining a skilled and expert blue collar laborer (he was once a truck driver of the most dangerous and difficult loads) are made impossible by the 1980s deindustrialization of America. Though Pierce is inundated by advice from his parents and relatives to enter the white-collar professions, they ignore another possibility that only we viewers see in other scenes of the movie. Initially forced by his parents to care for several disabled elderly persons in the neighborhood (partially as a punishment for remaining blue collar and not vanishing into an office), Pierce proves to be caring and even provides religious solace to these isolated and despairing oldsters.
We are shown in this movie that both the educated professions and the criminal life are both corrupt "hustles". But the possibility of serving the divine might, just might, seem to be both the best thing simply and the best thing for Pierce. At the end of the movie, as he swerves around Los Angeles in a borrowed Porsche to find the Soldier's (killed not during crime but in a commonplace auto accident) funeral ceremony, Pierce has the wedding rings in his pocket.
Pierce and the Obnoxious Horny 16 Year Old