Charles Burnett’s 1983 film “My Brother’s Wedding” is a lean piece of economic filmmaking, with a jumbled aesthetic that gives off a distinct impression of a few friends gathering round each weekend to shoot the breeze, and some footage on the sly. This seems odd given how strongly Burnett feels about his material, and how many degrees of moral verisimilitude it manages to convey. The audience realises very quickly that this approach suits the material, because it is honest, and the lack of professional polish allows for a more immersive look into the lives of the characters.
When we meet Pierce (Everett Silas), he seems distinctly un-noteworthy. Gawky, with long limbs that belie an adolescent awkwardness (he’s actually thirty), he constantly seems in a rush, but with nowhere notable to go. Early scenes establish his circumstances; he works in a dry-cleaners owned by his parents, his best friend is in jail, he has a quasi-caring role for some local neighbours, and he’s generally well-known, and liked, amongst the community.
But it’s immediately apparent that he is sorely lacking in ambition. We find out his brother is a successful lawyer, with a secretary, and soon to be married to a middle class well-to-do woman, who Pierce resents because… Well, she’s middle class and well-to-do, as if her successes and good fortune highlight his lack of those things. Admittedly, his paranoia is not entirely unfounded; observe the way Burnett hones in on little details like Pierce’s mother (Jessie Holmes) asking when he’ll have a secretary.
Eventually his friend Soldier (Ronnie Bell) is let out of prison, and Pierce begins to show some genuine enthusiasm. This is a film with conviction in every aspect of life it is portraying, but it gets at something similar to Truffaut in its portrayal of their central friendship, in that it understands that all you need to show is the pair laughing together to indicate years of a close bond, and that the way two people move around each other means far more than the words shared.
But even this happy element is tinged with tragedy, since despite Pierce and Soldier’s love for each other, Soldier is an undeniably violent criminal causing trouble amongst other members of the community. One of the many moments of the film that pits Pierce’s loyalties against the cold pragmatism of the world around him comes when he asks around trying to get Soldier a job; at the very mention of his name, prospective employers recoil. Is this a man Pierce should be hanging around, or is he just misunderstood? And does it matter anyway, when he so earnestly promised Soldier’s mother (Sally Easter) that he would do everything in his power to put Solider on the straight and narrow?
Scenes like these, buried amongst the gentle observations of everyday life and class warfare, reveal what the film really is, which is a study of our own individual morality, the realisation that we each have a moral responsibility of some kind, and that our actions, whatever their intention, have an impact that can only be measured much later, when it is too late.
The climax of the film sees Pierce torn between attending Soldier’s funeral, and being best-man for his brother’s wedding. Familial loyalty is pulling him one way, but a sort of filial loyalty to Soldier is pulling him another way. He knows that attending the wedding would be the most sensible thing to do, since his family will scorn him if he doesn’t, but he can’t shake his love for Soldier. In many ways, the funeral represents the death of Pierce’s prospects, and the wedding a chance for redemption, but he just can’t decide…
Everett Silas is the perfect actor to convey this moral conflict. A case of arrested development, he’s nevertheless a benign and good-natured young man who only takes issue when things seem to be threatening, directly or not, to him. His guard is up, and he has a shield of apathy around him, but he’s kind, loves his parents, and shows a caring nature.
Yet what the film gets at is that the world doesn’t care for your intentions or disposition; it’s the decisions you make that define you. In its plainspoken, grounded way, My Brother’s Wedding conveys these ethical intricacies with more weight and verve than the greatest moral melodramas.