Brother to Brother
November 5th, 2004
Rodney Evans’ “Brother to Brother,” the winner of a special jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival, works more as a fascinating window into the days of the Harlem Renaissance, than an allegory of the struggles of the modern-day gay black male. The stellar performances by Roger Robinson as the older personification of real-life poet, artist and Renaissance outré luminary Richard Bruce Nugent, and in their glory years, Daniel Sunjata as Langston Hughes, Ray Ford as Wallace Thurman and Aunjanue Ellis as Zola Neale Hurston, give this film grace within the intimate moments which keep it interesting when it dares to tear itself away from its more “important” storyline.
In modern-day New York City, emerging artist and college student Perry (Anthony Mackie, recently seen in Spike Lee’s “She Hate Me”) has been thrown out of his house after being found in a private encounter with another young man, forced to endure on his own with a meager college scholarship by working in a local homeless shelter. Anxious about the world’s view of his homosexuality, Perry finds his worldview constantly under attack by several classmates, and chooses to hide from the world in the sanctuary of his dorm room, only sharing moments like a public poetry reading with his few friends. While working on a slam poem with one friend, Perry meets a mysterious man who begins to deliver free verse to them, a poem Perry soon discovers in a book about the Harlem Renaissance he has acquired for a class project. Soon, Perry discovers this older gentleman, who sometimes stays in his homeless shelter, is none other than Richard Bruce Nugent, the last major surviving member of the famed 1920s artistic and literary movement above 110th Street. Wanting to learn more about those progressive days, Perry allows Bruce to take him to the Harlem house, long ago boarded up, where Bruce and his friends created “Fire!,” the revolutionary first literary magazine for blacks.
It is at this point when “Brother to Brother” comes alive, taking viewers back to a critical period in modern American history rarely seen in cinema. While Perry’s struggle with being a young gay black male in today’s world is a noble journey worthy of its own movie, it feels almost as an afterthought here, an attempt to connect viewers to what might feel like a history report of the past by making it a parable to similar problems in modern society. Problem is, Perry’s dilemma doesn’t have even remotely the same ponderousness to the predicaments facing people of the same race and creed eighty years earlier. Perry comes off as a sheltered man-child who sulks off to his room when things don’t go his way, unlike the other story’s protagonists, who reveled in their flamboyancy no matter what anyone thought.
It is also not much help that the real Richard Bruce Nugent died seventeen years ago, making much of the film instantly anachronistic.
For this, his debut, Rodney Evans shows much strength as a director and, at times, a writer, and should be a name kept on your radar for the future. It’s clear he has a passion for the cultural heroes of the past, and one can only hope he continues to tackle his future undertakings with the same enthusiasm he shows in his Harlem Renaissance moments here.
My rating: B-
(averaging out an A- for the Harlem Renaissance sections and a C- for the modern sequences).