Saturday, December 30, 2006

Film Review #73: Brother to Brother
Director: Rodney Evans
Cast: Anthony Mackie, Roger Robinson, Daniel Sunjata

Film can be a double-edged sword. In 1991, when George Halliday’s videocam captured Los Angeles police beating Rodney King, it provided visual evidence that was intelligible and convincing to large portions of the public, which in turn arguably made possible the prosecution of four of the officers. At the same time, that grainy image reinforced other mainstream media stereotypes. Throughout the long Simi Valley trial, the LA riots that followed the officers’ acquittal in 1992, and the national soul-searching and community organizing about police behavior in the 90’s and since, Rodney King has been persistently reduced to that eternally transient, one-dimensional figure – a “motorist.” Mainstream movies have the same pull. Despite the chopped-up chronology and multiple story-lines of a film like Babel, more often audiences, reviewers and investors have remained uncomfortable with layered, messier plots that reveal connections instead of keeping life’s parts roped off.

With that thought in mind, it’s not surprising that we meet Brother to Brother’s main character, Perry (Anthony Mackie), on that East Coast equivalent of the LA freeway – New York City’s MTA. As Perry rides along sketching another passenger across the aisle – the two young black men eye each other just a little – an older man looks back and forth between them and smiles knowingly, nostalgically maybe, before he gets off. Perry’s father has kicked his gay son out and the shuffling, rumpled older man lives in a homeless shelter, but this is not going to be another story about rootless outsiders that stays in its box.

Perry is an art student at Columbia, talented, curious, seeking his own roots and his own way. Pretty soon Brother to Brother director-screenwriter Rodney Evans has Perry arguing in Black History class with another young man who doesn’t see why Perry must keep bringing up the gay black subculture at the heart of the 1920s cultural movement we call the Harlem Renaissance. Brother to Brother uses wonderfully shot and acted flashbacks of ground-breaking, now-revered figures like writers Langston Hughes (Daniel Sunjata), Zora Neale Hurston (Aunjanue Ellis) and Wallace Thurman (Ray Ford); they meet as excited, brilliant young people, live together in a brownstone they dub “Niggerati Manor,” struggle with artistic and commercial ethics, and publish a radical magazine called Fire!! that first earned them withering scorn for its style and content.

Perry learns about this vividly when he makes friends with that old guy from the train, a semi-fictionalized Bruce Nugent (Roger Robinson, with Duane Boutte as the slender, elegant, younger version in the flashbacks). Nugent’s poetic short story, “Smoke, Lillies and Jade,” was the first published African American literary work on gay themes. He recites part of it and then Perry recognizes the passage, and his identity, in an anthology.

Nugent was also a painter; here, he takes Perry to the now-deserted building where he once lived and worked and the two artists paint one another – a profoundly loving act as imagined across the generations by Evans. The director spent two years researching this film at Harlem’s Schomburg Center and Nugent’s executor, Tom Wirth, gave him access to thirty hours of video interviews with Nugent.

Nugent died in 1987 and at first glance Brother to Brother is set roughly in the present, but it might as easily be a decade earlier – during Nugent’s life or in the early 90’s, contemporary with Rodney King’s era. Two movies that influenced Evans – Marlon Riggs’ great Tongues Untied and Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho came out in that period (1990 and 1991 respectively); another, Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven (2002), came out as Evans shot this one. When the film premiered in late 2004, Evans said, “I am not really into films having one simple message.” Perry’s jolt of recognition that Nugent is not “just” an old bum – along with issues of class, interracial romance, straight friendship, family cut-offs, gay-bashing, and what gets into the classroom and the bookstores – comprise this film’s many anti-“motorist” moments.

Skittish investors meant Brother to Brother took six years to make. Then some jittery reviewers had reservations about those multiple themes. Experienced as a documentary director and editor, Evans followed a careful course of festival entries (Special Jury Prize at Sundance), limited theatrical release, national PBS airing (on Independent Lens in June 2005), then rapid DVD release. As Bruce Nugent did for young Perry, this film will open a world.

The Syracuse City Eagle weekly published this review on 12/28/06 in Make it Snappy, a regular column reviewing DVDs.