BROTHER TO BROTHER (released in 2004), starring Anthony Mackie, who would later go on to be in Marvel’s THE AVENGERS movies, is one of the most heart-felt, emotionally nuanced films I’ve seen in a good while. Mackie’s acting was outstanding. He compellingly plays Perry Williams, an African American gay art student at a university in New York City.
This movie is an homage to the Harlem Renaissance and Richard Bruce Nugent (who apparently went by his middle name) within it. He was a painter and writer who knew Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, among others. His character (played by Roger Robinson as the elder Bruce and Duane Boutte as the younger) befriends Perry. Together, they converse throughout the film about being African American gay artists during the Harlem Renaissance vs. in NYC of the 1980s (when the present day story takes place, I think). Black and white filmed flashbacks of Nugent’s younger days in Harlem help to flesh out the exchange between he and the young Perry, who largely listens.
Perry is lonely after being violently disowned by his parents and unable to find meaningful companionship with another man. He finds deep meaning through learning about the Harlem Renaissance from Bruce and how he is naturally part of an ongoing culture of artists within African American history. Sensitive, vibrant portrayals of human relationships and their direct impact on artistic expression come through repeatedly in this piece of cinema. Along the way, socio-political issues are grappled with, such as the rampant homophobia within much of the African American community(ies) and the objectifying fetishism of black men by white men. These disconnecting dynamics felt painful to watch throughout Perry’s quest for love, meaning, and a sense of belonging. (And I found Perry captivating and lovable.) That is the movie’s intention, which led me a bit closer to better understanding, as a white viewer, what many urban African American gay men face in their daily lives. At least I felt somewhat more informed and genuinely empathetic than I did before watching this film. I bore witness for a little while.
I found my thinking and feelings particularly challenged around Perry’s fraught relationship with Jim, a white, long-haired fellow college student who becomes his lover for a short while. Jim is new to sexual involvement with other men but is clearly taken with Perry, who initiates their physical intimacy after Jim comes to his dorm room one evening. Before the morning arrives, he exhibits a pang of homophobic-informed regret by fleeing from Perry’s bed. He soon works through this discomfort, however. Sometime later, in a post coital moment of deep infatuation and appreciation, Jim compliments the main character’s physical attributes, including his lips and “black ass,” which he explains is the best he’s ever seen (or some such similar wording). The more experienced Perry is offended and leaves abruptly, much to Jim’s puzzlement and dismay. The next scene has the leading man conveying disappointment to his (straight) childhood friend Marcus (Larry Gilliard, Jr.), who commiserates with him about how white men are so insensitive and basically all the same. Initially, I felt sad and unsettled, thinking how Jim had no idea how he was ignorantly fetishizing his lover, which was not his conscious intention. I’m certain his words were well-meaning though not well thought out.
While watching this passionate but doomed relationship play out on screen, I recalled a humbling moment in my mid twenties when I said something fun and complimentary to an African American lover I was seeing at the time. My remarks were met with an awkward, tense chuckle. I quickly figured out my mistake and never spoke to him that way again. I felt too ashamed to apologize directly for my fetishizing words, which I’d taken from a Broadway play. He did not call me out on them, though it was his right to do so. It can seem like such a fine line between racist sexual objectification and true, caring appreciation of a beautiful black or brown man for who he is as a whole, unique, thinking, and feeling person. With the mainstream commodification of body parts, including African American men’s penises, buttocks, lips, and skin, it is understandably hurtful when he is (usually) yet again viewed and spoken to in a skin-deep, culturally programmed way, particularly in such an intimate moment as lying naked in bed with a lover.
Before seeing BROTHER TO BROTHER, I had mainly an intellectual, logical understanding of the importance of using non-racist, non-fetishizing language– both body/facial and spoken– with black and brown people. But, it hit home for me just how visceral an experience it is to be at the other end of such mindless, conditioned objectification, which creates a psychic wall between two or more people trying to love each other. At one end is the identified object while at the other is the dominant objectifier. Suddenly, it’s like each party is alone looking at the other across a chasm, one filling the space between with preconceived notions/prejudices, the other longing to be seen accurately and fully for who they are. It sure can seem and feel that way.
The naively racist Jim had a big lesson to learn. The already hurting Perry had no more emotional energy to spare to patiently wait for the young white man to wise up and love him back properly, unfettered by racist, fetishizing thoughts and words. I felt sad for both of these attractive lonely men. But, life is filled with such saddening misunderstandings and subsequent disconnections, including those tinged with racism, and therein lies a collective tragedy to overcome.
Later in the narrative, Perry finds a healing balm for his wounds of rejection by his parents, straight black peers/brothers, and his kind but clueless white ex-boyfriend. He and Bruce Nugent go to the run-down apartment building in Harlem where the latter used to live and create with his artist and writer friends decades before. There, the two take turns painting each other’s portrait late into the night, to a soundtrack of melodious jazz music. They pour their souls into their efforts, accentuating facial features with precision, care, and passion, sensuality pushing through the curves and vibrant colors. I was mesmerized and moved. Finally, Perry is not at all objectified, but admired and permanently rendered as the beautiful, deep thinking man that he is. He returns the favor to his older mentor, who gets showcased for being such a soulful, passionate man and talented artist after so many years of living in social isolation. I still well up when I think of this scene, having watched it over a day ago now.
I was able to suspend disbelief over the fact that actor Roger Robinson was a good fifteen or so years younger than the actual age of his character, the elderly Bruce Nugent. I looked up Nugent and read that he died in 1987 at eighty years old. An octogenarian could be less likely to get around so readily and confidently New York City the way Robinson in his early 60s could still do. I allowed for artistic license to happen for the purpose here of telling and showing a wonderful, multi-layered story of two men meeting up from very different yet powerfully similar (in racial and sexual identity struggles) eras. Nugent is portrayed as being like a wandering lone specter or ghost from a time long past who– through his eloquent poetry– captures the attention and imagination of a young, contemporary black gay artist brother. This brings Nugent’s work more into the present. For some moments, past and present are united and suspended together during the two men’s meetings, allowing for the vibrant exchange of ideas, including the passing down of inspiration and hope to a younger artist. Ultimately, art, such as poetry and painting, is often timeless, or so the narrative here reminds us viewers.
It should also be emphasized that BROTHER TO BROTHER is about celebrating life in the face of so much adversity. A scene that particularly crystallized this point and had me cheering is when, in flashback, Bruce Nugent and his cohorts, including Hughes and Ms. Neale Hurston, defy social convention while sitting in a local restaurant. They proceed to read aloud from their collective publication FIRE and loudly sing a song with this same title, ignoring the disapproving looks from other customers nearby. Their unbridled joy felt palpable and inspiring. These artists were not only expressing themselves genuinely and happily, pushing against oppressive shackles of convention, but, in so doing, giving permission for their fellow African Americans around them to consider doing the same. Such creative genius as these vibrant, life affirming moments keep occurring in this cinema gem. Put another way, the interweaving of these great authors’ quotes, along with the screen writer’s own thoughtful words spoken by Perry and other characters, give life and meaning to powerful experiences, this movie being an effective, honoring vehicle for so much cultural richness of human expression.
“Through him, I learned the complexity of what was inside me was also outside if I was willing to look deeper,” Perry reflects on his time spent with Nugent. “With words and images, I could convey the truth of my experience, putting it down, and passing it on.” Such encapsulated wisdom addresses much of the human experience, this striving to feel a part of the larger outside of one’s individual self and to capture such truth to then be passed on to others, including after death.
This incredible screenplay had me laughing and crying at different times throughout. I can see why Anthony Mackie became a star after doing such poignant, courageous work. The entire cast was excellent. Bravo to Rodney Evans, who wrote and directed BROTHER TO BROTHER, a labor of love and a cultivated mind.