I Do Movies Badly: The Brother from Another Planet
The protagonist in The Brother From Another Planet doesn’t speak one word throughout the entire film but allows the people that he meets and the neighborhood in which he meets them to give us a realistic picture of what it’s like to be an immigrant assimilating into a city with a troubling history of racism.
I don’t think the movie depicts “a troubling history of racism” for NYC. Instead its history as an Underground Railroad stop is highlighted, as well as its ongoing status as a haven for immigrants. At the end we see there are lots of other people like the protagonist there, which is presumably why he chose to flee there. He’s actually accepted and protected by most people there, even if they think he’s odd.
You mention the people leaving the subway train before a stop, but you also note that the reason that changed is not because of some change in the amount of racism but simple demographic change via gentrification. There are a couple of white guys who find themselves lost in Harlem and are scared, but they’re visitors from Indiana who decide it’s not so bad once they actually spend some time there. The woman who hosts “the brother” for a while also says she wouldn’t go back home to the south now that she has a partly black son. That’s a ding on the south, not NYC.
Sure, that’s all valid, but I think to say that the film doesn’t explore or doesn’t acknowledge racism in NYC would be inaccurate. As the quote that I read from Sayles says and as the looks on the faces of the two men looking for Columbia say, there was – and for some, still is – a perception that Harlem was a dangerous, criminal neighborhood that was to be avoided at all costs. Yes, the two men eventually realize that the residents are people just like everyone else, but the inherent fear speaks to a real perception of danger and a real aversion to a specific demographic that was perpetuated by media and law enforcement. That may not be the thrust of the film, but I believe that it certainly exists in context.