by Frederick B. Hudson, The Black World Today
“There is a war inside me.” With these words, a striving Black artist continues writing his journal on the subway — a journal that is a miniature path of the journey he is taking from self-doubt bordering on hatred. His pages chronicle acceptance of his sexuality as well as his peoples’ diversity of thought and expression in the face of constant challenge and change.
The personal dilemma is the source for the New York premiere of the film, Brother to Brother which premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music Rose Cinema.
Perry, a painter anticipating his first exhibit in Soho, has a lot of things going for him. He is bright, handsome, articulate, sensitive to others, and ambitious. But his parents cannot accept his homosexuality. His father has evicted him from the family home and the youth must struggle through college while living in a homeless shelter.
An elderly male co-resident of the shelter, gifted with the preternatural instincts of a prophet, senses a kindred spirit in the lad and follows him around the neighborhood. When Perry and his rapper friend are sharing rhymes on a street corner in Harlem, the old man, acted by Roger Robinson, appears silently and throws out some verses of his own: “if colors could be heard, he’d paint the most wondrous tunes…he could cloth the silver smoke.” The old poet tells the youths that he was doing this before they were born.
The old man begins to continually appear in Perry’s view -— when he returns from college classes where he is trying to incorporate awareness of James Baldwin’s lack of popularity among some civil rights activists because of his homosexuality.
In his frustration, Perry makes a film with actors portraying James Baldwin and former Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver engaged in a dramatic debate over the loyalty of the Black homosexual. Cleaver wrote in Soul on Ice that “many Negro homosexuals, acquiescing in this racial death-wish, are outraged and frustrated because in their sickness they are unable to have a baby by a white man.”
After his classmate in a course called “Black Political Struggle” contemptuously dismisses the relevance of his film, Perry’s frustration is doubled because he has joined in a sexual liaison with a white student which cannot grow past eroticism to the tender love the painter seeks.
Perry, portrayed by actor Anthony Mackie, begins to do research on the mysterious elderly poet who takes an interest in his conflicts and finds the older writer was a contemporary of Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Wallace Thurman. The old man takes Perry on a walking tour of Harlem and tells him of his gay artistic life with these celebrated artists.
The film uses black and white coloration well to portray the historical sequences, dramatizing not only the sexual urges of the writers but their commitments to publish work that did not pander to the common tastes of the public. Racism inflamed the latent urges of these writers to explore truth and honesty wherever the subject matter sprung. The writers and visual artists published their own magazine, called FIRE!. The publication was not only panned by white critics but was condemned by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People which found its contents too risqu?.
This is an important film since it explores the real gay lifestyles of many of the luminaries of the Harlem Renaissance. Few biographies have acknowledged Langston Hughes’ love life, although his poems and other writings have found their way into most world literature anthologies. By omitting the strong sexual rebellion that many of these writers felt, the question emerges as to whether we have only seen the crescent of their reflected moonglow rather than the whole globe.
One of the main financial sponsors of the Harlem arts movement was Carl Van Vechten, the white, gay patron ofmodernism and the “Harlem Renaissance” who initially suggested to the white publishing giant Knopf the republication of James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. This book had previously been published anonymously.
Siobhan B. Somerville noted in his 2000 book, Queering the Color Line that Van Vechten’s introduction accompanied the mainstream publication of Autobiography. In it, the white patron verified the accuracy of the experiences that Johnson chronicled, positioning the text as the raw material out of which other representations of African Americans, including his own novel Nigger Heaven could be produced. Van Vechten noted: “When I was writing Nigger Heaven I discovered the Autobiography to be an invaluable source-book for the study of Negro psychology.”
Thus Brother to Brother reinforces the decades old dilemma of Black artists who are torn between their fears of be compromised by a white establishment which frequently does not have their best interests at heart and the economic reality of survival. Perry is shown reading the biography of contemporary painter Haitian-American Jean-Michel Basquiat who died of a heroin overdose at age 27 despite being lionized by Andy Warhol and other celebrities. This echoes the death of Wallace Thurman at age 32 who drank himself to death after years of frustration with the Black community’s disgust with his writings which aired too much dirty laundry,
It cannot be overemphasized that all the literary figures portrayed in this film actually existed. Richard Bruce Nugent’s prose composition in FIRE!!, “Smoke, Lilies and Jade,” has to be called the first published work written from an explicitly homosexual perspective by a Black author. That its theme was homosexual and its sensibility one of over hedonism made it, of all the pieces in FIRE!!, the primary target of hostile middle-class critics.
Nugent lived until 1987, outliving all the other major Harlem Renaissance figures. In his later years, he was an indispensable primary source for historians of the Harlem Renaissance period.
This film is important since it turns over new soil in the African American psyche and polity. It has garnered important awards including the Independent Feature Project’s Gordon Parks Award for writer-director Rodney Evans as well as a Special Jury Prize at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival.