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Brother To Brother

by Kilian Melloy
Saturday Jun 22, 2019
'Brother To Brother'
'Brother To Brother'  

Before Anthony Mackie played Falcon in the MCU movies or starred as a straight man in whose bromance turns into a gender-bending virtual reality love affair in the "Black Mirror" episode "Striking Vipers," he starred in Rodney Evans' potent, luminous 2004 film "Brother to Brother."

Mackey plays Perry, a gay, African-American art student who's been kicked out of his home by homophobic parents and now finds himself caught in the cross-currents of his particular intersectional identity. The time is roughly 1987; Basquiat is a force in the art world, bathhouses are a part of life, and the AIDS crisis (though never directly addressed here) rages. In the midst of all this, Perry struggles to connect with others and to express himself. For a time it seems that his friend Jim (Alex Burns) might be a good match; when this turns out to be little more than hormones and wishful thinking, Perry is back to loose ends. Meantime, another close friend, Marcus (Lawrence Gilliard Jr.) — who is a spoken word poet — takes it on himself to try to make connections for Perry in the art world, even though Perry is skeptical of the big money and early success Marcus thinks he should want.

It's with Bruce (Roger Robinson), a habituĂ© of the homeless shelter where Perry works, that the young man starts to forge the kind of deeper bond he's wishing for. Their relationship isn't romantic; rather, the 80-ish Bruce, who turns out to have been a leading light in the Harlem Renaissance, takes on a mentoring role and shares his personal history with Perry. Bruce's recollections — which we see in back and white — and full of major literary figures, including Langston Hughes (Daniel Sunjata), Wallace Thurman (Ray Ford), Zora Neale Hurston (Aunjanue Ellis), and Aaron Douglas (Leith M. Murke). Bruce figures large in his own recollections, of course: It turns out he's none other than the writer and painter — and, even back then, openly gay — Bruce Nugent (Duane Boutte). In a nice touch, older Bruce and Perry show up on the margins of these flashbacks, hanging out in a corner during a raucous house party. Such is the immediacy with which Bruce summons the past to illuminate the present.

Curiously, the film throws in a quick, intense scene, unconnected to Bruce's experiences, in which writer James Baldwin (Lance Reddick) and Black Panther Party leader Eldridge Cleaver (Chad L. Coleman) engage in a furious debate that begins with passionate eloquence and rapidly escalates to the verge of a fistfight. Their disagreement centers around Baldwin being gay. It's an atavistic antecedent to the conflict between Perry and another African-American student, Rahsan (Billoah Greene), who is all about racial politics but has no interest in hearing about the LGBTQ side of civil rights. The scene between Baldwin and Eldridge is presented as a film clip that Perry shows to his class as part of a presentation; the exchange overshadows the under-developed conflict between Perry and Rahsan. Reddick is nothing short of spectacular as Baldwin, and that short, slightly misplaced snippet nearly boils over, with its mix of rapid-fire intellect and quick brawn, standing out against the quieter, more introspective tone of the film as a whole.

Still, it's an informative bit of historical context, lending the kind of scald and crackle that 1920s-era Bruce and his pals seek to ignite with the founding of a literary magazine they dub "Fire!!" The publication is roundly condemned as filthy and pornographic, with even the NAACP instructing newsagents not to display it on their stands. The magazine's messages and reception are another precedent at which the film gestures, perhaps a little too quietly, with a contemporary equivalent following close behind: Perry is advised — without soliciting the advice, of course — that he could be a great success if only he'd be willing to "explore the same themes in a more accessible way." That, of course, is the commercial way of looking at art... but it's not the artist's way.

"Brother to Brother" doesn't always seem to know what to do with itself, and some of its edges are left blurry rather than clarified, but it creates a kind of cinematic tone poem and a mood that honors the past twice over — and turns out to be unexpectedly relevant to the present time. Mackie and Robinson share the screen with engaging chemistry, anchoring the movie and making it worth watching (and now, 15 years after the film's initial release, re-watching) all by themselves.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

Frameline 2019

This story is part of our special report titled "Frameline 2019." Want to read more? Here's the full list.


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