Title: Brother to Brother
Director: Rodney Evans
Starring: Anthony Mackie, Larry Gilliard Jr, Roger Robinson
Distributers: Peccadillo Pictures
Country of Origin/Language: USA/English
Length: 90 minutes
Rating: 3.75 stars out of 5
A guest review by Leslie S
Summary: A solid and ambitious film comparing racial and sexual politics in the Harlem Renaissance and the present day.
Critically acclaimed drama that invokes the glory days of the Harlem Renaissance. As an elderly man, poet Bruce Nugent meets a young black gay artist struggling to find his voice and together they embark on a surreal narrative journey through his inspiring past.
Perry Williams (Anthony Mackie) is an artist with potential. He’s also a college student suffering intense loneliness and a need to be loved and accepted. Kicked out of home when his parents discovered he was gay, Perry struggles with real and perceived bigotry against his colour and his sexual orientation.
In his Black Politics class, a fellow black student picks on him for speaking of the gay social activist and novelist James Baldwin. A bisexual white student, Jim, is attracted to Perry but their fledgling relationship founders when Jim is presented as objectifying/fetishizing Perry’s race, which both confuses and angers Perry.
Perry turns to his straight friend Marcus (the fantastic Larry Gilliad Jr, who played D’Angelo in The Wire) for support. Marcus has always been there for Perry and stood up for him at school when the other kids tried to beat him up. Marcus is a poet and early in the film he dismisses the compliments of a white fanboy. Perry calls him on his anger: “The same anger you feel towards white boys is the same anger brothers feel towards me because I’m gay.”
Increasingly adrift and uncertain of his identity, Perry is startled one day when he meets writer/artist Bruce Nugent (Roger Robinson) in the homeless shelter where he volunteers. Nugent is a spry old man with clever charm and still with an eye for handsome guys. Over the next few weeks, Nugent relates tales of the days of the Harlem Renaissance (1920s-1930s), an explosion of African-American culture and intellectual life.
Poet, novelist, and painter, Nugent was the first African-American to publish an openly gay short story— ‘Smoke, Lilies and Jade’—in the one and only issue of the groundbreaking black literary magazine Fire!!. Through a series of flashbacks shot in black and white, Nugent reminisces about his friendship with other leading writers of the time, such as Langston Hughes, Wallace Thurman, and Zora Neale Hurston. He tells of their joy in words and art, their relationships romantic and otherwise, and of the struggles and prejudices they faced not only from white people but also from within the black community, who regarded them as decadent and immoral for focusing their literary work on subjects such as prostitution and homosexuality.
Perry sees a lot of comparisons between life in the 1920s and his life as an artist in the present day. Nugent’s experiences and their growing friendship help Perry to define himself as a young gay black man.
Brother to Brother is a film that asks a lot of heavy questions without being preachy and without giving the viewer any easy answers. The narrative thread is fairly slim—it’s more a series of individual scenes than a cohesive story with a beginning, middle and end, but that doesn’t matter. As the film unfolds, the parallels between 1920s Harlem and present day New York are both striking and sad in terms of race and sexual orientation.
The film doesn’t ground itself in any particular year, so it feels contemporary even though Nugent died in 1987. The clothing and other references could belong to any time, which brings a sense of fantasy to the film and which underlines the sense of “risk and magic” that Perry gets from Nugent’s recollections.
There’s a lot of tangled issues in the film, and issues within issues. There’s nothing clear-cut, which is echoed in Perry’s confusion. How can a race fight for equality when it oppresses another minority? How can we claim to be a liberal and enlightened people when we condone attacks on minorities? Why does the fear and hatred of homosexuality cross the racial divide? Can black and white, gay and straight, ever be truly equal? These are incredibly important questions and the film doesn’t attempt to answer them—it just puts them out there for the viewer to consider, and certainly it’s made me think a hell of a lot over the past few hours.
The issue of casual racism, for example, or ‘thoughtless’ racism, when the person making the comment isn’t even aware that what they’ve said may be considered offensive. Perry’s lover Jim stumbles into this trap without even realising that his endearment, meant to be sexy, is actually something that Perry finds insulting and offensive. This type of racism is almost ingrained, as a scene in a 1920s flashback shows so powerfully. When Nugent first meets Wallace Thurman, he makes an excuse and leaves the room because “the sight of someone I admired being so black—it all came crashing down on me, seeing these prejudices within me.”
One of the most memorable scenes for me was a sequence showing a white male publisher talking to Thurman, Nugent, and Hurston in turn about how they as black writers should change their voices to give the readers what they want. The audience isn’t interested in truth or reality—they want their Harlem novels to be full of sex and violence. The publisher shows Hurston the biggest bestseller for the past six months—a book written by a white man that was so popular it started a craze amongst white people known as ‘Harlemania’. “Imagine,” says the publisher, “how the public would embrace the authentic Negro perspective” –before telling Hurston exactly how she and other black writers should write their books and what kind of language to use so their work could be ‘accessible’.
There’s a strong message of ‘everything changes but nothing changes’, especially as regards homosexuality. I really liked the exploration of interracial attraction that runs through both the 1920s and present day sections of the film. Nugent and his friends encountered prejudice and hatred from within their own community for being ‘different’, and this is echoed by a scene in which Perry is beaten up by a street gang for being gay. As I said, the parallels between the 1920s and the present day often made me feel sad that we’ve come so far and yet we still have such a long way to go, but at the same time the film is not gloomy or depressing but is actually quite uplifting.
This was writer and director Rodney Evans’ first film, and it does feel like it at times. The script is a little clunky and self-conscious with some stating-the-obvious dialogue, and the cinematography is somewhat pedestrian. Nevertheless, this is a very good film that poses some hard-hitting questions. Quite apart from the intellectual side of the film, I loved discovering about the Harlem Renaissance and the writers and artists of that movement—my favourite parts of the movie were the 1920s scenes, which are absolutely gripping. I’ve given it 3.75 stars because of the issues with the script and cinematography, but don’t let this relatively middle-of-the-road rating put you off. Brother to Brother is an important film that deserves to be watched.