Artwork by Richard Bruce Nugent, an artist who was part of the Harlem Renaissance, and who figures in Brother to Brother both as a young man in the 1920s and as an older (but weirdly not old enough) man in the early 21st century.
What is it?
An American independent film from 2004, written and directed by Rodney Evans.
What’s it about?
It’s the story of Perry, a young African-American art student in New York. The film shows him dealing with a series of challenges: rejection by his father, a homophobic classmate, a relationship with a white guy, the familiar queer loneliness we all know. And then he meets an elderly gay man, Bruce Nugent (who really existed!), and discovers he was a member of the Harlem Renaissance back in the 1920s and ’30s. Through Bruce, he learns about the struggles that another generation of gay Black men and women faced.
An aside: I was a bit discombobulated by the chronology of the film. Assuming that the action of the film takes place around the time of the film’s release, Bruce Nugent would have been in his nineties, but the Bruce character in the film appears to be in his sixties—which means he wasn’t even born at the time of the Harlem Renaissance. This lent the whole film a fairy-tale quality, which was rather reinforced by the slightly clumsy, misty-eyed, TV-period-drama, black-and-white flashback sequences.
Sounds as though the filmmaker wanted to talk about that period, so chronology be damned!
One definitely senses that Rodney Evans had a “mission” in making this film. The title reflects the theme: the multi-generational struggle for acceptance by the queer African-American community, and more particularly the artists among them. The story of the Harlem Renaissance is an interesting one, no doubt about it. But I think Evans really needed to make two films: one about that, and another about modern gay Black lives. He tries to do too much.
That’s better than trying to do too little.
But is it a mess, then?
It isn’t. It’s nicely acted. Anthony Mackie gives an engrossing performance as sweet, sensitive, occasionally hot-headed Perry—I really cared about him. The film is fast-moving and consistently enjoyable. But this is the opposite of “there’s no there there.” Here, there’s too much there!
Reluctantly, no. I have great respect for all that the writer-director was attempting here, and I’d definitely say this is worth your time. But it’s far from an outstanding film, more like a diverting (and educational) bit of TV drama.