Picked up as homeless, he is deposited in Harlem. The sweet-natured and honest Brother looks like any other black man, except that he is mute and - although other characters in the film never see them - his feet each have three large toes. The Brother has telekinetic powers but, unable to speak, he struggles to express himself and adjust to his new surroundings, including a stint in the Job Corps at a video arcade in Manhattan.
He is chased by two white Men in Black (David Strathairn and director Sayles himself); Sayles's twist on the Men in Black concept is that instead of government agents trying to cover up alien activity, Sayles's Men in Black are also aliens, out to re-capture "The Brother" and other escaped slaves and bring them back to their home planet. Unlike the many human characters in this film, the aliens themselves are oblivious of skin color, and screenwriter Sayles has one of the Men in Black utter an epithet "Three Toe" when describing their quarry, in attempt to prove that skin color is just as arbitrary as number of toes or any other human characteristic that would make one different from another.