While many Sundance indies tend to be about too little, the admirable flaw of the ardent 2004 entry Brother to Brother is that it yearns to embrace too much. And under the circumstances, I’ll indulge the too-muchness, with gratitude. Because instead of sticking to the relative containability of a story about a young, black, gay painter in present-day Brooklyn, first-time writer-director Rodney Evans makes a ballsy leap into historical fantasia, with heartfelt fervor outrunning stray moments of artistic gawkiness.
The painter, Perry (Anthony Mackie), has got problems: His father has disowned him, other politically active African-American men around him disdain gay rights as a concern for the community, and his white lover may be more interested in Perry’s black exoticism than his Perryness. But then Perry meets the forgotten historical figure Richard Bruce Nugent (character actor Roger Robinson) — a black gay poet (1906?1987) who bloomed and faded during the racial-sexual-artistic garden that was the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and ’30s. Through Nugent’s eyes, with flashbacks in black and white to the passions of Langston Hughes (Tony Award nominee Daniel Sunjata), Wallace Thurman (Ray Ford), and Zora Neale Hurston (Aunjanue Ellis), along with Nugent’s daring sexual openness, Perry finds a source of support from the past that uplifts his present.
And the filmmaker finds a way to pay homage to a lesser-known, valiant figure, sympathetically portrayed through Robinson’s witty performance. As the film moves from casually frank sex scenes to episodes of earnest (if stiff) political debate with equal excitement, the movie’s title — alluding to a famous anthology of writing by black gay men — reverberates with increasing power.