Relative Stranger (US 2009)

The cast of Relative Stranger in a staged promo image.

The cast of Relative Stranger in a staged promo image.

I came across this by accident on TV and because I’d just lost the chance to screen a Charles Burnett picture (see Barbershop post) I made an effort to record it. Burnett is arguably the most celebrated of African-American directors because of Killer of Sheep and To Sleep With Anger. One critic has described him as an heir to Renoir.

So what is he doing directing a TV movie distributed by the Hallmark Channel and showing in the UK in the afternoon movie slot on Five? Either he needs the money (I presume that he’s never made much) or he just needs to work as he is becoming a ‘veteran’ at 65 and needs to have some kind of profile to promote future projects.

Relative Stranger is an 88 minute family melodrama. The central character is Walter, a man whose only real chance of a glorious career went with his knee when he was a football star six years ago. Presumably he wasn’t that big a star, or he didn’t have the right kind of insurance, because after hospital he decided he couldn’t face going home to his wife and family, and especially his father, as a ‘failure’. He can’t play football (the American kind) any more so he drives a cab in New York (somewhere North and East anyway). But work is scarce and when he gets a lawyer’s letter stating that his father has died, he decides to go to the reading of the will. Following the advice of a (white) clergyman who seems to be his (quite sensible and pragmatic) counsellor, he decides that he will take whatever money is coming to him and give it to the children he has abandoned. In this way he hopes to at least ease some of the pain. In LA, in a quite upmarket suburb, his wife is now in a relationship with his brother, his daughter is very anti the idea of his return, but his small son, only a toddler when Walter left, desperately wants to see him. His mother is quite phlegmatic about welcoming him back. He isn’t aware of any of this and what happens when he returns is a surprise.

What do I make of all this? The acting is fine and the story is not without interest, in fact it could be a great melodrama but . . .

I was nearly driven insane by the insistent background music – which isn’t a melodramatic score, but a dreadful muzak-like sentimental plinking and plunking that dribbled on throughout every scene. The mise en scène was so clean and ordered it was like watching a drama filmed in the style of an infomercial for an upmarket house furnishing store – there is virtually no chance of any expressionistic work. The casting was quite bizarre. Nobody looked like they were related to anyone else. OK this might not usually be a problem, but I expect a sense of realism from Charles Burnett. Walter’s daughter was supposed to be a budding athlete but she could barely run, whereas his brother looked like a weightlifting champ rather than a high school teacher and Walter’s wife was a kind of Cosby Show glamorous mother who worked as a legal executive. What I think this refers to (i.e. the middle class setting) is that sense of a positive representation of African-American life, desired by aspirant TV audiences, and I guess that is fine, but it certainly doesn’t allow a real melodrama. Afternoon movies have no bad language, no violence, physical or emotional and no real ‘excess’ to get stuck into. Somebody please find Charles Burnett a worthwhile project or funding for what he could organise for himself. The same goes for Eriq LaSalle as Walter, who deserves better roles – like the rest of the cast he has a strong TV background but only limited film appearances.


  1. Hunterwali

    In answer to the question, “So what is he doing directing a TV movie distributed by the Hallmark Channel and showing in the UK in the afternoon movie slot on Five?”

    Making a living. Directors in the states who work within an independent mode (if there is such a thing) often supplement their habit for artistry through television and television films. Tom DiCillo directs Law and Order. Many of the women (white and nonwhite) directors such as Martha Coolidge and Darnell Martin also find themselves working for television. Cheryl Dunye directed “The Stranger Inside” for HBO, admittedly, higher profile than Hallmark, but also did “My Baby Daddy,” an abysmal comedy that few would associate with her.

    The thing to do in the cases of watching popular work is to check for its function as a Class E film– are there cracks or expressions of their concern that come forth? This would be an exercise for students, and possibly also for bloggers.


    • venicelion

      I agree with your analysis – I just wish I could think of what does show through of Burnett’s artistry here. Perhaps the direction of the actors – that’s probably the only aspect he has control over.


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