My Brother’s Wedding (1983)
Written & Directed by Charles Burnett
The career of Charles Burnett has always been one plagued with obstacles. When he was coming up, you couldn’t be a Black filmmaker with deeply artistic inclinations and not have a ton of shit thrown in your path. Today, Black filmmakers benefit from how he carved out a way, and they routinely express their admiration & gratitude for what Burnett did. Killer of Sheep did incredible in the foreign film festival circuit, but when Burnett returned to the States, there wasn’t even a whisper about the movie. In his homeland, he would work in obscurity, a seeming refusal among the white film critic establishment to even acknowledge his work existed. In the 1980s, Burnett was still working, making movies that spoke to him with little focus on their bankability. He definitely would like to have been given the acclaim his white peers received, but that would never happen.
Pierce (Everett Silas) is just a guy in the neighborhood. He has no ambitions and works at his parents’ dry cleaning business mainly because he won’t look for a job elsewhere. But he is working, just not earning. Pierce checks up on the old folks in his community. He also hangs out with Soldier (Ronnie Bell), his friend that has just been released from prison. Pierce makes sure to visit with Soldier’s mother while he goes in and out of prison, assuring her that this time is the last time and her son has learned his lesson. Meanwhile, Pierce’s brother Wendell (Monte Easter) is a successful lawyer who has undoubtedly risen above the circumstances he was born into. He’s about to marry a fellow lawyer whose family comes from an upper-middle-class Black community. This class difference sticks with Pierce and causes him to resent this woman and her family.
Once again, like Killer of Sheep, Burnett can find tragedy & comedy in the mundane events of life. The wedding is only a factor near the film’s end, and for most of its runtime, we’re just following Pierce around. It’s a character study about the type of guy you’d come across in South Central Los Angeles. Crime isn’t a big deal because it’s so typical, not because the people there want it; the society they live in has no interest in doing anything about it. When you are as powerless as most Black people were, you have to learn to live with many bad things (How little has changed). From the FBI’s reaction to the Black Panther free breakfast program, we can see that they will literally murder people who go above & beyond.
Despite the bad stuff, there’s a lot to celebrate in the lives of these characters. Pierce’s parents undoubtedly love him, but his father is passive, and his mother is too aggressive. Even Sonia, the future sister-in-law, isn’t evil; Pierce just has well-founded anger about class. Burnett brings us into this world without hand-holding; he’s making a movie for himself and other Black people. The cinematic language is familiar but slightly different, fitting with a rhythm we don’t often see in media where the white experience is centered. I cannot emphasize enough how funny this movie is. It’s humor in little moments, not complex set-piece joke constructions, but just the comedy of living, the laughs that can be found in small failures.
The wedding is part of a duad with a funeral. Both events happen on the same day, and their time overlaps. Pierce wants to be at the funeral because it holds a strong emotional tie to his everyday life. But his brother’s wedding is something he has a familial obligation to attend. The ironic ending has him screwing up both events, missing most of them. It’s a sad note to end on, Pierce feeling like he’s failed, everybody. It makes us think about how often we’re caught in obligations to other people and if they are tied to what matters most. Is it more important to honor traditions or to show respect to our community? Burnett offers no answer, just the experience of this man’s life.
My Brother’s Wedding is not a film that Burnett remembers too fondly. It was a co-production with a German financier, and the director was shut out of the final edit. Then it was sent for screenings at a New York film festival without the director’s approval. Since then, Burnett has secured the rights to the picture and cut an edit closer to his original intent. Film critic Armond White has gone on the record saying that the release of My Brother’s Wedding was “a catastrophic blow to the development of American popular culture.” Now, if you know anything about White, you know he is quite a controversial figure in American film criticism, often taking an extreme contrary to the point of being reactionary stance on films to be defiant. However, I agree with him on My Brother’s Wedding. Burnett could have positioned himself as an emerging Black voice important to major American films. That didn’t happen, though. In the following two reviews, we will explore how Burnett’s career developed and how his filmmaking style evolved.