My Brother's Wedding Review

As I argued in my review of Killer of Sheep (the other Charles Burnett film to gain a recent release from the BFI), it’s possible to see that remarkable feature debut as a forerunner to another, namely John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood, both films depicting the African-American experience in South Central L.A., albeit during very different eras. Continuing this logic, it’s surprising (or perhaps not) to see how much My Brother’s Wedding, Burnett’s belated follow-up to Killer of Sheep, resembles Singleton’s later, underrated Baby Boy. Both retain the L.A. setting and take as their lead a young man desperately clinging onto their youth/adolescence. This means still living with their parent(s) and minimal ambition, but also a wilful attempt at independence despite such circumstance. In the cast of My Brother’s Wedding’s Pierce we see a playfulness (continually wrestling with his ageing father), a dead-end job working at his folks’ dry cleaning business and a strong bond with childhood friend Soldier undiminished despite his criminal behaviour and a recent still in jail. In contrast his brother has become a lawyer and is about to marry into a far more prosperous family. As his soon-to-be sister-in-law puts it: “Is Pierce retarded?”

Yet whilst Pierce is hardly a role model, or even an admirable character, Burnett brings his customary warmth into play when bringing him to the screen. As with Killer of Sheep, My Brother’s Wedding is a piece of social reflection, conveying issues of class and community indifference but without ever forcing its hand. The film may be slightly less serious that Burnett’s earlier work – there’s a wry sense of humour throughout, heightened but never overplayed – yet it remains just as unassuming with few pretensions to offering up a definitive portrait or espousing a point or message. It’s also just as raw – is it the budget or Burnett which refuses the slicker treatment? – and the soundtrack, though used more sparingly than in Killer of Sheep, is just as evocative.

Such is this lack of pretension, and the fact it merely wishes to offer up a slice of life, that My Brother’s Wedding risks passing the viewer by. The poeticism of Killer of Sheep is muted (the “upgrade” from black and white to colour undoubtedly playing its part) and it’s altogether more languid. There’s also a slight misbalance in narrative terms: more ‘plot’ than Killer of Sheep perhaps yet the central event of the titular wedding isn’t even mentioned until late on, whilst the character of Soldier, who will take a hold of the film, similarly gets introduced about the halfway point. To an extent there’s a reason for these flaws. As Burnett discusses in the disc’s accompanying interview he had a strict deadline to meet owing to some of the financing coming from a German television company and an actor (he doesn’t name who, but we can guess) who became increasing hard to track down thus making re-shoots an impossibility. As such My Brother’s Wedding was hastily rushed into post-production and has remained almost impossible to see since its initial appearances in 1983, Burnett never being fully satisfied with the end results. What we have here then is a two-disc set hosting both the original cut and a newly prepared, much pruned director’s cut. The latter is considerably tighter and affords greater prominence to the key elements. Yet I miss the manner in which the 1983 version could dwell on a scene or a character and just pick up on their rhythms. Consequently neither cut can prove quite satisfactory enough, though there’s still enough to make this a worthwhile venture. As with Killer of Sheep Burnett was making these type of films when few other, if any, were and as a result they still strike an audience, even thirty or twenty-five years later, as incredibly fresh. My Brother’s Wedding may not quite be the rediscovery that Killer of Sheep was, but it’s not to be ignored either.

The Discs

Two discs, each housing one of the two cuts. Disc one contains the shorter version, this being Burnett’s preferred cut, plus the extras, whilst disc two has the 1983 original only. There’s no difference in presentation, both come from the same restored elements, in their original aspect ratio and with PCM mono soundtracks (optional English hard-of-hearing subtitles are also available). As with Killer of Sheep there’s the expected amount of grain, but still a terrific detail to the image. The colours are crisp and correct whilst any damage is minimal. Similarly the soundtrack is clean with any flaws surely being the result of the film’s production rather than the discs’ mastering.

Although no commentary accompanies either version, the extras on My Brother’s Wedding otherwise match those found on Killer of Sheep. The exclusive 12-minute interview with Burnett discusses production issues, the themes raised in the film and how real-life incidents influenced both the overall and individual scenes. There are also two shorts from the director, though both were made many years after the main feature. When It Rains (1995) is particularly interesting inasmuch as it demonstrates how Burnett has returned to the methods of My Brother’s Wedding and Killer of Sheep despite the majority of his recent work being made for American television and thus far more sanitised. Here we find the rawness back, the documentary-ish edges and, of course, the all-encompassing humanity. Quiet as Kept (2007), meanwhile, was shot on DVD and takes in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and those families affected by relocation. Once again an amateur cast (in this case a genuine family) take centre stage but there’s a heavy-handedness to the dialogue, one conspicuously absent in the other Burnett films found on these BFI discs. Rounding off the package we also find the accompanying booklet containing a new article by critic Nathan Grant, bio for Burnett, credits for both feature and short plus a number of production stills.

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