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Brother to Brother
What is the stronger bond, race or sexuality? Will a gay, black man feel more kinship with his straight friends who happen to be black or his gay friends who happen to be white? For many, the question shouldn't have to be asked. Yet black homosexuals are often forced to choose their primary allegiance, as the African-American community, with its strong cultural roots in the church, has never been comfortable with overt homosexuality. Brother to Brother, a new film from writer/director Rodney Evans, explores this issue by featuring a contemporary story and then looking back to the Harlem Renaissance.
Anthony Mackie plays Perry, a college student who also works at a homeless shelter and paints in his spare time. Perry is both black and gay, a fact that does not endear him to everyone on his campus. In one class, where the students are coincidentally reading James Baldwin, Perry brings up the role of homosexuality in black culture only to be shouted down by another black student. A white classmate named Jim (Alex Burns) offers Perry some solace which leads to a late-evening conversation which leads to some late-night sex. This is the second movie this year in which Mackie has taken on a sexually demanding role (the first was Spike Lee's She Hate Me). In this case, there's no nudity involved (nor is there much in the rest of the movie) but there is lots of hugging and kissing.
Soon after, Perry meets Bruce Nugent (Roger Robinson), an older black man who sometimes stays at the shelter. But Perry doesn't notice him until he hears Bruce reciting poetry on the street. He soon realizes that Nugent was a writer of some note back in the 1930s. Wondering why an artist of his stature would be reduced to living on the streets, Perry approaches Bruce, and the two strike up a friendship. Bruce, who's also gay, is happy to mentor the younger artist as well as introduce him to what the Harlem Renaissance was all about.
The best parts of Brother to Brother are the flashbacks to Harlem in the '30s. Evans's decision to film those scenes in black and white is clichéd, but it gives them an elegance that the dirty color of digital video lacks. It also helps that Aunjanue Ellis as Zora Neale Hurston, Ray Ford as Wallace Thurman, and especially Daniel Sunjata as Langston Hughes embody their roles so perfectly. The three, plus Bruce Nugent, started the publication Fire, which was devoted to young black artists who wanted to shake up the status quo. When that sense of daring ventured into the sexual mores of the culture, however, the magazine was vilified by the same people to whom it was trying to speak. Evans understands how a community can form around a creative project but also how easy it is for that community to turn on itself over time.
Unfortunately, the contemporary story isn't as interesting, except when it focuses on the friendship between Perry and the much older Bruce. Mackie and Robinson are strong enough actors to smooth over some of the dialogue, and their friendship has a natural air that carries the day. But many of the minor actors seem out of their depth, and Evans's relative inexperience (this is his first dramatic feature) pops up in simple things like how characters face each other (stiffly at times) and how scenes are edited together (awkwardly). Even the dialogue and story, which seem so natural in the flashback sequences, stumble in the present day. "There is a war inside me," Perry says in a voiceover. "I write my own thoughts down to lessen their potential to harm me." Does anyone talk like that, even in their own diary? And when near the end of the movie, Perry is beaten up by one of his classmates, the scene feels deterministic, as if every gay-themed movie must feature a mugging.
Still, there's much to admire in Brother to Brother. Robinson is fantastic as a man whose sense of dignity is not determined by his circumstances. Mackie continues to impress as a young actor. And the soundtrack, a mix of jazz standards and new compositions, sets the mood nicely. Those interested in the Harlem Renaissance or contemporary sexual politics will want to check out this one.
J. Robert Parks 12/8/2004