Brother to Brother
Directed by Rodney Evans
So well-intentioned is writer-director Rodney Evans’ debut film Brother to Brother that one is tempted to ignore its dramatic shortcomings. This was have been the case when it made its debut at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival and won the Special Jury Prize. Brother to Brother may not be a great film, but it is certainly one with its heart in the right place.
By following the relationship between Perry, a young, black, gay painter, and Richard Nugent, the relatively obscure black, gay poet of the racial-sexual-artistic movement that was the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920’s and ‘30s, Evans posits the thesis that the rejection and persecution endured by black gay men from members of their own race mirrors the difficulty of Nugent and other Renaissance writers (most notably Langston Hughes, Wallace Thurman, and Zora Neale Hurston, all portrayed in the film) to get their literary magazine “Fire” distributed when, due to the provocative nature of the works, the NAACP tried to have copies of the journal removed from newsstands. This idea alone is intriguing, pertinent, and clearly articulated by Evans. However, if I’m describing the film as if it were more of a sociology project than a work of art, it’s because the film often seems as didactic as the college term paper on Nugent that Perry submits at the film’s end. For all the merit of the film’s premise, one wishes that it had given us more in the way of dramatic conflict and emotional payoff.
That is not to say that the characters and performances aren’t engaging. As Perry, Anthony Mackie is appropriately sensitive and soulful (which serves as a testament to his range to those who only know him as tough rationalist Sgt. James Sanborn from The Hurt Locker), and character actor Roger Robinson subtly provides the older Nugent with just enough humor and pathos to convince us that the flamboyance and passion of the Harlem Renaissance haven’t been diminished with age. Unfortunately, too much of what occurs in the film merely exists for the purpose of making a statement rather than developing these potentially rich characters. For instance, a good amount of the film deals with Perry’s ongoing flirtation and eventual intimacy with Marcus, his white (and supposedly straight) classmate. However, a post-coital remark about his “hot black ass” leads Perry to wonder whether Marcus is more interested in his black exoticism than his individuality. If the film had gone one step further and addressed Perry’s own paranoia and prejudices, it would have added a layer of intrigue. Sadly, Evans’ script is content to merely link this experience to that of Nugent & Co., who were encouraged by publishers to appeal to a white audience by playing up the seedier aspects of their stories and translating black “idioms” into “English”. While such a parallel is worthy of being drawn, the romantic subplot should not have been left to dangle the way it did. It also doesn’t help that the film keeps alternating between scenes of the present and past. Again, while the journeys into the Harlem Renaissance convey the sense of community shared by the writers in a way an undergraduate lecture about the era never could, in trying to squeeze two narratives into a flimsy 90-minute running time, one can’t help but feel dissatisfied with both.
And yet, despite biting off more than it can chew, Brother to Brother is still worth seeing. In an age where mindless sex romps such as Eating Out 3 sell the most tickets at LGBT film festivals, it isn’t difficult to forgive the film for its classroom-ready earnestness, and instead choose to embrace its refreshingly thoughtful exploration of what has been an all but ignored issue in queer cinema. Furthermore, as a first-time writer and director, it is evident that Rodney Evans is the real deal. Despite incorporating the overused “troubled youth strikes up inspirational friendship with historical figure” plotline, Evans wisely relies on his gifted cast rather than pretentious or manipulative stylistic devices. Evans clearly has much to say about the African-American homosexual experience, and I, for one, am quite eager to see what he will offer when he learns how to let his characters grow as richly as his own insights.