Brother to Brother is an ambitious 2004 film from first time director Rodney Evans that weaves a tale of past and present through the eyes of artists from both eras. That the film is a debut feature from the filmmaker is notable, for while it tells a story of an era that is surprisingly not oft told, it almost falls victim to the first time director curse of trying to do too much.
The film introduces us to Perry a young, African-American student in New York, struggling with personal trials in the face of his family’s recent discovery of his homosexuality. He is not alone on his journey, however, as we meet the friends and classmates that populate his world and who seem to accept him as he is. Where the film comes alive, though, is in Perry’s ‘meet cute’ on the streets of the city with an older man who both vexes and fascinates him.
The older man turns out to be Bruce Nugent, a prominent figure of the Harlem Renaissance who, like Perry, is gay. It is in their meeting and subsequent socializing that the film takes the audience out of the present and back to the vibrant and tumultuous world of Bruce’s past.
We meet Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Wallace Thurman, and others of the day, who create a Harlem of artistic truth and freedom the likes of which the young Nugent is eager to get in on. These Harlem Renaissance portions of the film, which are shot in black and white for effect, offer parallels for current day Perry that he has never previously considered.
While much time has passed since the days of the Harlem Renaissance, Perry and the audience find that not much has been done in the way of widespread black, or African-American, lack of acceptance of homosexuality. Then, like now, creatives who happen to be black and gay are brushed under the collective societal rug in an effort to pretend that these people don’t exist and can’t sully the race with their unnatural doings. Within their own sphere, there is none of that exclusion, however. Instead, black and gay artists are often fetishized and exoticized by the usually wealthy white people, like Carl Van Vechten, who is portrayed here, who, when it was convenient, inhabited and profited from their world.
That idea, fetishization, is also something that current day Perry has to come to terms with, as he finds himself the object of exotic desire and ‘otherness’ of his down-low, white lover, Jim.
The most heart wrenching scene in the film, for this viewer, was a scene that takes place between Perry and Jim. In it, Perry, after some positive association and time spent with older Nugent, comes to the realization that the only things he’s after are love and true acceptance, and that he is, indeed, worthy of that love and not the crumbs of sexual desire currently on offer. If that were the film’s only redeeming quality, which it is not, it would be enough. There are countless young, gay, black people who could use that particular lesson and perhaps, a viewing of this film.