Movie review: 'Brother to Brother'

Minority GroupsEntertainmentMoviesDaniel SunjataAnthony MackieLangston HughesZora Neale Hurston

2 stars (out of 4)

There might be a lot to root for in "Brother to Brother," a low-budget indie about a black, gay college kid who befriends a living relic from the Harlem Renaissance, but there's little that made me actually like watching it.

Ambitious but clumsy, it's a movie to appreciate rather than to be engaged by, which is why, I presume, it won a special jury prize for "passion of subject" at Sundance this year.

The film, which jumps between litter-strewn, modern-day Manhattan and old-time, jazz-fueled Harlem, is writer-director Rodney Evans' first feature--and at times it feels like a checklist of first-timer's mistakes, including hit-or-miss acting, loose strings and too much telling instead of showing. In fact, it is so painfully earnest that I mistook it for a student film--and was surprised to find that Evans has worked in the industry for a while as a film editor, and that the lead, the blank, unbeguiling Anthony Mackie, starred in Spike Lee's hated "She Hate Me."

Mackie plays Perry, a pensive, earthy-necklace-wearing student who is estranged from his family for being gay. He hooks up with an iffy white friend, argues with classmates about James Baldwin's sexuality and tries to lose himself (or find his blackness) in a bathhouse. One day, while he and a poet friend are throwing rhymes on a stoop, a gentlemanly old man (Roger Robinson) impresses them with his own recitation.

The old man, though he looks to be in his 60s, turns out to be Bruce Nugent, a gay poet and painter who lived and loved with Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston and others back in the 1920s and '30s. (Many of the black-and-white flashbacks are from taped interviews with the real-life Richard Bruce Nugent, who died in 1987.)

Now living in a homeless shelter where Perry works (and which Perry can just abandon when he wants to go strolling with Nugent), Nugent shares with Perry his memories of those heady, legendary days. Their bond is more bittersweet than empowering: It's got to be a bit of a bummer to Perry how much more exciting it was to be black and gay in New York 80 years ago. As for Nugent, he can't conceal his crush on the muscular, younger man.

Robinson's portrayal of the nostalgic, flirtatious Nugent--he's still "got it," one might say, without being too creepy--is one of the film's charms. The same cannot be said of the performance given by the actor who plays him in his earlier days, Duane Boutte. Boutte plays the young, naïve Nugent as wide-eyed and stagy, which makes it hard to understand why such dynamic people (like Daniel Sunjata's virile Langston Hughes) would want to embrace him.

But even if the script seems to be teaching us half of the time, even if some of the Jazz-Age merriment feels forced and unfunny, and even if the parallels drawn between the two men's lives are a little pat, the subject matter still merits interest. It certainly whets the appetite for more big-screen takes on the Harlem Renaissance.

Director Rodney Evans will host a question-and-answer session at Landmark's Century Centre Cinema after the 7 p.m. show and introduce the 9:10 p.m. show on Friday and Saturday.

"Brother to Brother"

Written and directed by Rodney Evans; photographed byHarlan Bosmajian; edited by Sabine Hoffman; music byMarc Anthony Thompson; produced by Jim McKay, AimeeSchoof and Isen Robbins. A Wolfe Releasing release;opens Friday at Landmark's Century Centre Cinema.Running time: 1:30. No MPAA rating.

Perry - Anthony Mackie
Bruce - Roger Robinson
Marcus - Larry Gillard Jr.
Zora - Aunjanue Ellis
Young Bruce - Duane Boutte
Langston - Daniel Sunjata

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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Minority GroupsEntertainmentMoviesDaniel SunjataAnthony MackieLangston HughesZora Neale Hurston
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