BROTHER TO BROTHER


Starring: Anthony Mackie, Roger Robinson, Duane Boutte, Daniel Sunjata, Ray Ford, Alex Burns, and Aunjanue Ellis
Director: Rodney Evans
Writing Credits: Rodney Evans
Distributor: Miasma Films (US 2004)
Rated: Not Yet Rated

The destructive forces of racism and homophobia have divided blacks and gays from one another for more than a century, despite the hard realities of shared oppression and common goals. When the two prejudices come together, however -- as they do daily in the lives of black gay men and women -- the divide can have even more devastating consequences. These intersecting lines of prejudice have rarely received much attention in society or in the cinema...but even more rare is an eloquent exploration like that on display in BROTHER TO BROTHER, first-time director Rodney Evans' exquisitely moving reclamation of the Harlem Renaissance's heroes. Evans, in what has to be one of the major cinematic debuts of the year, ingeniously bridges time and space to contrast the lives of contemporary gay black men with their spiritual and historical ancestors like Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Wallace Thurmond, Richard Bruce Nugent. BROTHER TO BROTHER argues urgently and majestically for a more historically aware social consciousness, but also pulls off that most difficult of tricks...being a taught, surprising, and powerful drama in and of itself.

Evans' savvy premise is to set his themes and subjects in two different eras. In modern day New York, a young painter and student, Perry (Anthony Mackie), works in a homeless shelter by day...and by night struggles over his conflicted romance with the closeted, white Jim (Alex Burns). By a chance spotting at a poetry reading, Perry discovers that one of the aged black men living in his shelter is actually Richard Bruce Nugent (Roger Robinson), an unsung legend of the Harlem Renaissance who lived, for a short time, in a house with Langston Hughes (Daniel Sunjata), Zora Neale Hurston (Aunjanue Ellis), and Wallace Thurmond (Ray Ford). The two men, who share the bonds of painting, sexual orientation, race, and a love for the past, become fast friends. Perhaps even more than friends -- through grainy black-and-white flashbacks of the young Nugent's experiences (played with flair by Duane Boutte), the creative, sexual, and ethical struggles of these great 20th-century artists sagely mirror those of Perry's very 21st-century reality. Through Nugent, Perry discovers the hidden past of these literary and artistic legends, a vital and necessary history that provides both personal renewal and cultural continuity. What emerges by the end credits of BROTHER TO BROTHER is a starkly dramatic realization that prejudice is both universal and personal; the experience of these men and women -- spanning a century between them -- serve as history lesson and biographical drama, but also as the story of everyday people who must make difficult personal choices when confronting the many facets of bigotry in America.

Despite its sagely drawn politics, director Evans -- who also wrote the screenplay after two years of exhaustive research -- never bogs BROTHER TO BROTHER down in polemics or minutiae. First and foremost, the film is a drama, and it excels in capturing crisply-defined characters on the edge of transformation. For the young Hurston, Hughes, Thurmond, and Nugent, these legends-to-be are learning how to live their lives with honesty in the face of critical and social ostracism -- their erotic publication, Fire, incites even fellow blacks to denounce them as perverts. Hughes and Hurston also struggle with white editors who want to indelibly change their novels; Nugent deals with issues of plagiarism at the hands of his own friend Thurmond. Meanwhile, modern-day New Yorkers Perry and Bruce deal with the difficulties of intergenerational relationships among gay men. Though it remains non-sexual, there is a passionate tension between the two artists that starkly argues for a passing of tradition and history. Young gay men have much to learn from those who came before them, and in BROTHER TO BROTHER, the two leads reach across this divide to ground and center each other in friendship. In what is perhaps the film's most arresting scene, these two artists -- one young, one old, bound by history and circumstance -- paint each others' portraits. This simple act of creative tenderness reaches across time and generations, healing two wounded men who find a different kind of solace in each other.

The performances in BROTHER TO BROTHER are of a caliber seen all too rarely in independent cinema, exuberantly delivered and passionately rendered. It is clear even to the casual viewer that the young, exceptionally talented actors are working overtime to honor and celebrate the lives of their famed characters. As Perry, Anthony Mackie (8 Mile) emerges as one of the most talented actors of his generation; blazingly magnetic and calmly assured, Mackie gives full range to the inconsistencies and incongruities that make Perry's life so difficult. Perry's journey is more than a mere rite of passage, it is a terrifying blind leap into a more complex sense of oneself. In Mackie's hands, every discovery seems new and unique. Daniel Sunjata, who thrilled Broadway audiences last season in the Tony-winning drama Take Me Out, brings a formal grace to Langston Hughes that contrasts sagely with the cherubic impishness of Ray Ford's Wallace. Together, Sunjata and Ford reveal the powerful idiosyncracies of the period, while simultaneously planting the seeds of its eventual dissipation. In a story primarily concerned with gay men, the charming Aunjanue Ellis' Zora Neale Hurston doesn't have very much to do, but the two Nugents -- Boutte in flashback and Robinson in the present -- dynamically and energetically inhabit this little-known historical figure with a twinkling effervescence.

BROTHER TO BROTHER has already begun to pile up well-deserved awards, including IFP's Gordon Parks Award for Screenwriting and a prestigious Special Jury Prize for Passion in Filmmaking at this year's Sundance Film Festival. It is not hard to understand why. Like the best works of Hughes and Hurston, BROTHER TO BROTHER blends politics and storytelling with an uncommon artistry. Other great films (Issac Julien's Looking For Langston) and not-so-great films (Coppola's The Cotton Club) have been made about Harlem's storied past. Rarely, though, have the artists involved exemplified and utilized its creative spirit in telling the tale. BROTHER TO BROTHER is not simply a good film, nor even a great one. It is more than that. It may just be the most sophisticated and compelling movie about the lives of black gay men ever made.

-- Gabriel Shanks

Review text copyright © 2004 Mixed Reviews & the author. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text in whole or in part in any form or in any medium without express written permission of Mixed Reviews or the author is prohibited.

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