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Your Toronto 2014 Issue Navigator

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My Brother’s Wedding

Killer of Sheep director Charles Burnett's sophomore feature.

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DIRECTED BY CHARLES BURNETT

Like its predecessor, Killer of Sheep, Charles Burnett’s sophomore feature took the long road to critical acclaim. First shown in a poorly received unfinished version at the New York Film Festival in 1984 (only to be dumped in a minor theatrical release several years later), the film never reached its ideal form until 2007, when Burnett finally managed to secure a director’s cut. Reshaped in a significantly shorter version, My Brother’s Wedding proved to be a vital—if rough-hewn—follow-up to Killer of Sheep, one of the most important American independent films of the 1970s. It’s sort of a Los Angeles-based riff on Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets.

Scorsese’s loosely autobiographical calling card feels like a blueprint for Burnett’s film in a number of ways, from its naturalistic depiction of an impoverished neighbourhood where crime is the only viable way of life, to its tragicomic portrait of a young man caught between a no-good friend and a righteous path to redemption. My Brother’s Wedding follows Pierce (Everett Silas), a good-natured thirtysomething black man who spends his days toiling for his parents’ dry-cleaning business and helping his neighbours. Though he’s studied to work with his hands, the only jobs around are for the college-educated, which leaves Pierce in an awkward spot between the success of his lawyer brother, who is about to marry into a rich home (their comically exaggerated lifestyle prefigures the Banks family in Fresh Prince of Bel-Air), and his childhood friend Soldier (Ronnie Bell), a trickster who’s fresh out of prison and back to his old habits.

Pierce’s divided loyalties to his family and to Soldier take some unexpected turns. While the finale might strike some as heavy-handed for its allegorical set-up of the two roads its hero can choose to walk down, there’s a richness to his characterization that makes up for the more programmatic flourishes in the script. As in Killer of Sheep, Burnett has a masterful command of detail. More than that, he has a knack for set pieces that make fine use of his locations: a chase scene through the dirt roads and grass of Pierce and Soldier’s neighbourhood is as authentically rooted in the geography of L.A. as certified greats like Roman Polanski’s Chinatown

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