Rodney Evans’ first narrative feature “Brother to Brother” is an ambitious drama that explores artistic and personal integrity in a context straddling past and present. Centering on a young New York artist whose friendship with a key figure of the 1930s Harlem Renaissance prompts him to examine his own values, the film’s transitions between periods are not entirely seamless and its discourse often becomes didactic. However, the depth and intelligence it brings to issues of black politics and sexuality could help carve an appreciative theatrical audience in upscale gay and/or urban niches.
Inevitably, Evans’ foray into one of the richest periods of Harlem’s past recalls British filmmaker Isaac Julien’s “Looking for Langston,” though the scope here is considerably broader and, unlike the earlier work, the approach is more reflective than aesthetic. In addition to Langston Hughes, Evans resurrects writers Zora Neale Hurston and Wallace Thurman, with a now-elderly Bruce Nugent serving as the principal character’s chaperone to the period of groundbreaking literary productivity and scandalous parties full of queers and whores.
Principal contemporary figure is Perry (Anthony Mackie), a lonely painter still trying to absorb the emotional shock of being rejected by his parents when they learned he was gay. Perry clashes with members of his college class, who refuse to accept that James Baldwin’s fight for respect as a gay man was no less political than his struggle as a black man. While this classroom screed becomes a little whiny and cumbersome, it does serve to underline the enduring anti-gay hostility in parts of the black community and to provide a basis for Perry’s historical curiosity.
Using his poet friend Marcus (Larry Gilliard Jr.) as a sounding board, Perry wrestles with questions of homophobia and racism, and grasps unsatisfyingly at love with white college classmate Jim (Alex Burns). But the real key to his self-understanding comes via Perry’s chance encounter with Nugent (Roger Robinson), who stays at the homeless shelter where the younger man works.
As their friendship develops, Bruce shares his memories of Harlem, when he was swept along as a fledgling writer and new kid in town (played as a young man by Duane Boutte) by the more worldly Hughes (Daniel Sunjata), Hurston (Aunjanue Ellis) and Thurman (Ray Ford). Shot in black-and-white and scored with the smoky-jazz sounds of the day, these scenes convey the heady thrill of the period’s lively gay subculture, in addition to the creative ferment and rebelliousness that produced revolutionary literary journal, “Fire!”
While the historical links to the present are vividly drawn, poignantly acknowledging the debt owed by blacks and gays to their taboo-busting forebears, the shifts between time frames could be more fluid and some of the performance styles in the ’30s scenes are a little contemporary. But the interludes perform a vital function within the complex narrative, with Bruce’s innate pride and dignity ultimately guiding Perry toward the discovery of a more fully developed sense of himself.
Coming from a docu background, writer-director Evans has room to grow in terms of his handling of actors. But while the cast is uneven, Mackie and Robinson both create sensitive, sympathetic characters. In the vintage scenes, Ellis and Ford contribute some sparkling moments, while the impossibly good-looking Sunjata (recently of Broadway’s “Take Me Out”) is underused, failing to imbue Hughes with the requisite charisma. Ernesto Solo’s resourceful production design delivers handsome results on what appears to have been a modest budget.