In the heartfelt and imaginative "Brother to Brother," writer-director Rodney Evans has found an effective way to convey the plight of a gifted but embittered young African American painter (Anthony Mackie) within an evocation of some key figures and events of the Harlem Renaissance, an era rich in cinematic material yet little explored on the screen.
Thrown out of his Brooklyn home by his father when he discovers his son is gay, Mackie's Perry moves to Manhattan, where he is a university scholarship student and works part time at the desk of a homeless shelter. Understandably prickly much of the time, Perry still retains a sense of humor that can be tapped by his friends, especially his well-grounded best pal, Marcus (Larry Gilliard Jr.), an aspiring poet. He seeks the comfort of a romantic relationship and tries to find it with an easygoing, good-looking fellow student (Alex Burns).
In a deft use of foreshadowing, Evans shows Perry and Bruce Nugent (Roger Robinson) crossing paths several times before Perry realizes that the dignified elderly gay man who checks into the homeless shelter is one of the last surviving figures of the Harlem Renaissance, a poet and artist fallen on hard times.
Through Nugent's reminiscences of his youth, Perry finds a role model and a direct connection to his dual heritage as a black artist and a gay man. When Nugent takes Perry to an abandoned brownstone, the visit triggers the first in a series of flashbacks to the mid-'20s, when the shy young Nugent (Duane Boutte) meets Langston Hughes (Daniel Sunjata), who was then sharing the brownstone with fellow writers Wallace Thurman (Ray Ford) and Zora Neale Hurston (Aunjanue Ellis). Nugent fires up Perry's imagination, encourages his artistic aspirations and even gets him to relax a little.
There are a couple of self-conscious moments, to be sure, and some anachronisms, but on the whole, "Brother to Brother" is a graceful work of range and depth. Evans was especially fortunate in his cameraman, the stunning "La Ciudad's" Harlan Bosmajian.
After playing a remarkably potent heterosexual in Spike Lee's "She Hate Me" and an openly gay man in this film, Mackie, at the beginning of a truly promising career, displays a terrific range, not to mention charisma. In a sense, "Brother to Brother" is a coming-of-age film, and Mackie persuasively reveals Perry's often painful maturing process.
The film is studded with nifty supporting portrayals, with Burns and Ford (in his film debut) especially notable. But it's the rich presence and easy authority of Robinson that brings both a gravitas and a blithe spirit to "Brother to Brother."
'Brother to Brother'
MPAA rating: Unrated
Times guidelines: Mature themes, some language and sexuality
Roger Robinson...Bruce Nugent
Larry Gilliard Jr....Marcus
Ray Ford...Wallace Thurman
Daniel Sunjata...Langston Hughes
Aunjanue Ellis...Zora Neale Hurston
A Wolfe presentation of a Miasma Films production in association with C-Hundred Film Corp. and Intrinsic Value Films. Writer-producer-director Rodney Evans. Producer Jim McKay. Cinematographer Harlan Bosmajian. Editor Sabine Hoffman. Music Marc Anthony Thompson. Costumes Sarah Beers. Production designer Ernesto Solo. Art director Claire Falkenberg. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.Exclusively at the Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (323) 848-3500.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun