“Brother To Brother,” an innovative film about African American gay men in the arts, opens this month in select cities and will have limited runs across the country in early 2005. It stars Anthony Mackie (“8 Mile,” “She Hate Me”).
The title, “Brother to Brother,” is taken from a 1991 African American fiction anthology edited by Essex Hemphill. The film won a Special Jury Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and the 2000 IFP Gordon Parks Award for Screenwriting, among others.
Writer, producer and director Rodney Evans interweaves the present with the 1920s. The past is the Harlem Renaissance, that fabled pre-war period of creativity uptown and downtown. The past was poet Langston Hughes, writer Zora Neal Hurston (Aunjanue Ellis from “Ray”), journalist Wallace Thurman and poet Richard Bruce Nugent. The present is 20-something visual artist Perry Williams, newly out of the closet and away from home.
Perry (Mackie) works the desk at a homeless shelter where the aging Bruce Nugent (Roger Robinson) lives. They connect because they both are artists and gay Black men. The older Bruce tells the younger Perry the stories of his past. Using virtual reality, Perry is able to step in as observer of the scenes Bruce creates.
If there were issues about being Black and gay in the 1920s, one wouldn’t know it. Yet Perry in 2000 is banished from his home and estranged from his family and friends when his father finds him with another boy in his room.
There are two accidental subtexts to this film. One, that to be gay (or to be Black and gay) is to be without a home, literally and figuratively. And two, that even though one is Black, the most desirable emotional connections are made with white men, and — in at least one instance — putatively straight white men.
Then there is a third theme, that gayness comes to sadness. Bruce Nugent now lives in a shelter; he used to live on rooftops. Perry is gay-bashed on the street and shunned by his family. Wallace Thurman died in his 30s from alcohol poisoning.
What the director intended, I think, is to show that Black gay male artists have not only been around for quite a while, but have been productive (even famous), and mainly out in the open. There are no closets in the house.
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