NB: These notes make the outcome of the plot explicit
My Brother’s Wedding was Charles Burnett’s second film, released over a decade after his first film was conceived and shoot over weekends in 1972 and ‘73. That film, The Killer of Sheep, would have been Burnett’s breakthrough film, more than the calling card one might expect for a picture completed as a Master’s thesis. Instead music rights issues kept it trapped in the archive, until a 2007 reissue confirmed the rumour of its greatness that had attended it in its sporadic and shadowy showings in the thirty years since its release. Shooting on My Brother’s Wedding could only begin when he had sold television rights to his debut (the music licensing costs one imagines being significantly smaller for the small screen), giving him enough budget to begin work on his second film chronicling the lives of the inhabitants of the predominantly black Los Angeles neighbourhood of Watts.
The Watts tower sits like a sentinel over the neighbourhood, looking like a junk metal version of Antonio Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia, vibrant and utterly distinct from the largely residential housing that surrounds it. A quixotic piece of outsider art, its creator Simon Rodia began the work without plan and eventually sold the plot of land to his neighbours and vanished. More distinct a practitioner from Charles Burnett one could not find: Burnett’s art is superficially loose but dense with symbolic meaning. Deeply rooted in the world and its contradictions and injustices, he has a rare, sympathetic eye to the economic, emotional and spiritual snares that his characters are caught in.
Pierce works in his parents’ dry cleaners, a cramped space that seems to mirror his limited aspirations. Contemptuous of his lawyer brother’s upwardly-mobile marriage, he ministers to the needs of his elderly relatives (ill-tempered though he may be about it) and receives the great unwashed (at least, their clothes) into the store. The choice of the dry cleaners as the hub of the story is a resonant and ambivalent one: not only is its centrality in the community a register of the absence of home washing machines (that potent signifier of post-war affluence) it is also offers the opportunity to contemplate the pride that the inhabitants of Watts still retain (‘These are my church-going pants!’). Pierce’s mother, constantly mislaying her hymnal, is anxious to avoid the moral taint of her lessers: in her telling words, their ‘mess’ and ‘dirt’.
Compared to the loose sketches of The Killer of Sheep, My Brother’s Wedding expresses the bleak prospects of its protagonist through a more focused narrative dilemma. The film mines similar territory as comedies such as Coming to America, The Cosby Show and The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, reflecting the diverging paths in black America during the 1980s – between middle-class suburban assimilation and remaining faithful to one’s ‘roots’. The intergenerational nature of the film allows for a survey of the rapid changes witnessed in black life over their lifetimes. The neighbourhood of Watts is especially prescient in this regard, twice becoming a flashpoint in racial disputes (the 1965 Watts riots and the 1992 LA Riots). Pierce’s father complains that the young would do better under the labour of the cotton fields, until his wife contradicts him, his false nostalgia for a time he never experienced. Pierce himself is uncertain of the generation beneath him: ‘Soldier’s never done anything evil or vicious. He’s never sold dope. He’s nothing like these kids today.’
Pierce is either absolutely still or sprinting from place to place. Like the Dardennes’ The Kid with a Bike, this movement and stillness becomes, by accretion, a powerful metaphor for his unsettled position, between remaining where he is and moving quickly ahead, between boyhood and manhood. A constant presence in the laundrette is Angela, a prepubescent girl who is fixated on Pierce. It’s a neat comment on his extended childhood that an eleven year old marks him out as a potential date. Ironically, she herself is premature in pursuit of adulthood (‘In a couple of years I’ll have my prom, and I was thinking if you weren’t busy… that is if I don’t have stomach cramps…’)
The central dinner party at the future in-laws proves to be the flashpoint between Pierce’s rejection of respectability and his sister-in-law’s self-satisfaction. It’s a wonderful culture clash, made all the more dense in racial and social politics by the presence of the family’s hispanic maid. As Pierce’s mother politely asks what is in the salad, their host relays the question to the maid. While she simply reels off the ingredients in Spanish, the lady of the house patronises her guest, ‘I think what she’s saying is that what you think is an apple is a potato.’ Hilariously, Pierce’s attempt to express class solidarity is also spurned by the maid.
Remaining faithful to one’s roots comes at a cost, and the downwardly mobile trajectory is played out in the return from prison of his childhood friend Soldier. Clearly supplanting the brother he can no longer relate to, the ebullience and warmth between the two as they run and roughhouse, croon and caper in the streets of the city is one of the film’s highlights. That they are two fragments of a past age (‘Where is everybody?’ asks Soldier. ‘It’s just you and me,’ returns Pierce after a pregnant pause) means that Pierce feels duty bound to accept all his friend’s misdemeanours as much, as he unilaterally rejects his actual brother’s pretentions. One troubling scene sees Soldier coerce a woman into sex at Pierce’s place of business. In a blunt piece of symbolism, Pierce’s mother is distraught to find her hymnal underneath the two lovers.
The dilemma between the life choices of the two brothers, surrogate and actual, becomes concrete when Pierce is forced to decide between the titular wedding and the funeral of his friend, now a victim of a car crash. Apparently based on a similar situation experienced by Burnett himself, the prosperity and progress promised in the marriage ceremony is intercut with scenes from the funeral home: a low-ceilinged space that looks close to a converted garage with fake wood-panelling.
A young man’s acapella hymn eulogises Soldier. Shot with proscenium-like frame, the significance of the song’s lament seems to be expand beyond than the life of one man. When Pierce misses both the funeral and the wedding, the camera zooms in on his hands, toying with the wedding ring, poignantly enclosing on him like the possibilities of life itself.