||“Brother to Brother” is a short film about a great many things. It’s under ninety minutes long, but it shuffles two time periods--the present and the Harlem Renaissance of the 1930s (the former shot in color, the latter in black-and-white)--and raises cross-generational issues in the process. And in each of the periods it deals with the problem of prejudice--but not so much of the black-and-white variety (although that’s touched on), but of anti-gay bias among African-Americans themselves. As if that weren’t sufficient, it wants to address the subject of artistic integrity in both eras, too. That’s an awful lot to try to encompass in a single narrative lasting less than an hour and a half, and it has to be said that the picture sometimes stumbles in the attempt. But although its reach exceeds its grasp, Rodney Evans’ picture deserves points for its ambition and many elements of its craftsmanship. “Brother to Brother” is flawed, but absorbing.
The script centers on Perry (Anthony Mackie, the able young actor from Spike Lee’s “She Hate Me”), a college student and would-be artist in New York City. He’s in emotional turmoil, having been thrown out of his family home because his parents discovered him in bed with another man; and the relationship he’s developing with pleasant white fellow student Jim (Alex Burns)--the only classmate who shows him any support in the face of anti-gay hostility from their black classmates--hits a quick roadblock as well. But by chance he meets Bruce Nugent (Roger Robinson), an elderly fellow who occasionally spends the night in a homeless shelter where Perry works, and learns that Nugent is a poet who once was part of the cutting-edge Harlem artistic scene that also included such luminaries as Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. Nugent not only tells Perry about his experience in that exciting milieu, but lends encouragement to the younger man’s own creative work and in effect teaches him to be true to himself no matter what compromises others might demand from him.
The wide range of issues Evans is juggling in “Brother to Brother” is impressive, but the writer-director--whose previous work has been in the documentary arena--doesn’t prove capable of keeping them all in the air very smoothly. As a result the narrative stumbles along rather than moving forward easily, and as a whole has a jerky quality that isn’t helped by the constant temporal shifts. (The editing of Sabine Hoffman may be somewhat culpable here.) On the other hand, the 1930s sequences, shot by cinematographer Harlan Bosmajian in lustrous black-and-white, are elegant in themselves, and the performances in them by Aunjanue Ellis (as Hurston), Daniel Sunjata (as Hughes), Ray Ford (as Wally Thurman) and Duane Boutte (as the younger Nugent) are solid; Marc Anthony Thompson’s jazz-flavored score lends appropriate atmosphere to them, too. The contemporary scenes are less uniformly successful, but Robinson brings dignity and grace to the older Nugent, and Mackie works diligently as Perry, although as written the part is more reactive than not. Among the supporting players in these sections, Larry Gilliard, Jr. makes a strong impression as Perry’s poetry-reciting buddy Marcus and Burns is pleasantly laid-back as Jim, but the smaller roles are much less ably filled.
One might wish for a bit more subtlety and finesse from “Brother to Brother,” but though the film sometimes fails in its parts, as a whole it’s strong enough to merit a look.