Brother to Brother

By Kirk Honeycutt
Sundance Film Festival

PARK CITY -- "Brother to Brother" is a fascinating and absorbing tale that takes a generational leap within the African-American community from present day to the glory of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1930s to confront issues of sexuality and identity that remain unresolved from that time to this. This first feature from writer-director Rodney Evans, presented in competition at Sundance, heralds the emergence of an exciting new voice in black filmmaking, a man willing to look deeply into culture and mores to gain insight into problems that refuse to go away. While the film's gay theme might possibly limit its audience, cineastes will recognize a talent that deserves theatrical exposure.

Evans penetrates the wild, experimental inner sanctum of the Harlem Renaissance through one of its forgotten figures, Bruce Nugent, a poet and painter, who co-founded the literary journal "Fire!" along with Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston and Wallace Thurman. Evans imagines a present-day encounter between the elderly Nugent (Roger Robinson), who sleeps in New York homeless shelters yet still dispenses poetic wisdom on street corners, and a young black gay artist named Perry (Anthony Mackie) whose paintings are good enough to include in gallery showings while still in college.

Bitterly rejected by his family for his homosexuality, Perry is on the verge of ignoring his friend Marcus' plea not to withdraw from society when he meets Nugent, an openly gay artist in his own era. Nugent takes Perry back to the Harlem house known as "Niggeratti Manor," where as a young man, Nugent (Duane Boutte), Langston (Daniel Sunjata), Zora (Aunjanue Ellis) and Wally (Ray Ford) experimented so determinedly with art, life and love.

As the movie flips back and forth from present day (in color) to the past (in black and white), Perry comes to see that issues of racism and homophobia and the struggle by radical artists against conventional wisdom belong exclusively to no era. The men's relationship parallels that of young Nugent, who learned so much about culture and life from his illustrious friends.

It is breathtaking how smoothly Evans tackles so many themes and maintains the surreal yet utterly logical connection between the two eras. The key theme here is the ambivalence within the black community, especially among its political leaders, over homosexuality. Until that gets resolved, Evans seems to say, this will forever compromise the fight for equality and identity.

The actors in the historical sequences display no self-consciousness in evoking such major figures, playing them as young, highly idealized champions of social and artistic experimentation. Those portraying present-day conflicts also offer convincing portraits of characters struggling with their art and how to avoid the blandishments of white cultural mavens that will compromise their work.

Superb cinematography, costumes and design help Evans make the connection between the two eras. "Brother to Brother" dramatically underscores how the search for artistic truth is never easy.


A Miasma Films production in association with C-Hundred Film Corp. and Intrinsic Value Films

Credits: Writer/director: Rodney Evans; Producers: Rodney Evans, Jim McKay, Aimee Schoof, Isen Robbins; Director of photography: Harlan Bosmajian; Production designer: Ernesto Solo; Music: Marc Anthony Thompson; Costume designer: Sarah Beers; Editor: Sabine Hoffman.

Cast: Perry: Anthony Mackie; Bruce: Roger Robinson; Marcus: Larry Gilliard, Jr.; Zora: Aunjanue Ellis; Young Bruce: Duane Boutte; Langston: Daniel Sunjata; Jim: Alex Burns; Wally: Ray Ford.

No MPAA rating, running time 91 minutes.