The Brotherly Conversation

Young black poet meets a hero of the Harlem Renaissance

There are thoughts that have the power to trap me. I write them down to be honest and to lessen their potential to do harm. There’s a war inside me.
Perry Williams, writer & painter

It’s funny how all these things live inside you until you make your peace with them.
Bruce Nugent, writer & provocateur

In Brother to Brother, a young gay black student and painter named Perry (played by Anthony Mackie) meets an elderly homeless man in the shelter where Perry works. Later in an unexpected encounter — unexpected for him anyway — he’s treated to the homeless man’s spoken verse on the street: “making magic out of words and rhythm.” Their meeting is an interruption in and disruption of Perry’s life. The man turns out to be Bruce Nugent, one of the few out gay writers from the 1920s Harlem Renaissance. Nugent was friends and colleagues with Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston and Wallace Thurman, among other black literary luminaries of the period. Later, Nugent confesses that the way they met was planned — he had in fact been watching and evaluating Perry from a distance.

The two men strike up an unlikely friendship based on shared affinities. The campy-when-he-wants-to-be Nugent, played by a nimble and having-fun Roger Robinson, narrates what it was like to fight a battle for identity on several fronts: against the white publishing establishment that was willing to accept submissions from the Renaissance writers, but wanted more “sex, drugs and violence” in Negro writing; against establishment Negroes who called writers like him depraved (the NAACP prevented these writers’ self-published magazine, Fire, from being displayed in Harlem newspaper kiosks, and there were book-burnings); and against inner demons that drove many closeted gay writers of the time to kill themselves through booze or drugs.

We of the younger generation are like all human beings in a period of transition. We are eternally discovering things, about ourselves and about our environments which our elders have been at pains to hide. They have been so busy justifying their presence in a hostile racist environment that they’ve ceased to be human beings. With the new magazine [Fire!!], we will cease to look for respectability in the white person’s eyes. We will express the beauty and ugliness of our individual selves for ourselves. If anything is being disturbing or pornographic, so much the better.

Perry finds parallels with Nugent in his own life as his father continues to reject him and as the male heterosexual black students in his Black studies class insist on the marginality and imputed “whiteness” of his homosexuality. James Baldwin figures prominently in these sequences, as Perry reads out loud from The Fire Next Time and screens a short film which is described in an intertitle as “Text from the thoughts and experiences of James Baldwin and Eldridge Cleaver.” This film depicts a fictitious conversation between Baldwin and Cleaver, the militant civil rights leader. Cleaver’s Soul on Ice was published in 1968 as a collection of essays. In one, Notes On a Native Son, he conducts what others have called a “homophobic beatdown” of Baldwin. In the film Perry screens, Cleaver says:

You!…You let the white man fuck you in the ass. And you know what that makes you? Huh? That makes you the lowest scum on the earth.

Seconds later he overthrows the table and the film cuts to black just before the two come to blows. The film also intercuts archival footage of black civil rights marches and gay rights marches featuring black lesbian and gay activists. Afterward, the other students in the class, even the lone white bi-boy Perry has recently had sex with, look sheepish. The young men in the class are derisive —we can assume they’re straight, although that’s not a foregone conclusion — and they protest the inclusion of such “marginal” issues in a class about civil rights. One young woman confesses she didn’t even know Baldwin was gay. Perry confronts Rashawn, the most vocal and homophobic of the young men, exhorting him to come out of the closet, implying that his aggressive bigotry masks an internal struggle.

This film within a film, which didn’t exist until director Rodney Evans invented it, is one example of a formal tactic that Evans employs to create the film’s didactic poetry — a tactic that stages a dialogue between the styles of the writers Perry admires with more recent black artistic forms, such as slam poetry and contemporary, independent filmmaking, and that also provides a bridge between the politics and struggles of the past. The film asks how these politics and struggles have constructed and informed the communal and personal identities of the present, or if they have in fact been forgotten or elided, as Baldwin’s sexuality has, as Nugent’s stature as a writer and artist has. Another formal tactic the film employs to do this is the intercutting of contemporary scenes with scenes from the 1920s past, narrated by Nugent in voiceover, which are presented as black and white inserts and flashbacks.

Evans also plays with history quite a bit. In fact, Richard Bruce Nugent died of congestive heart failure in 1987, in New Jersey, not in Manhattan. I couldn’t find any material online that suggested he was homeless. Brother to Brother is set in contemporary downtown Manhattan and Harlem, or at least in the mid to late 90s. I’m guessing the time period because in a scene in which Perry’s trick asks about De La Soul tickets, a DJ Shadow track is playing in the Nuyorican Poets Cafe where Perry’s best friend Marcus is testing out new material. As far as I can tell, Perry is a fictional not historical character. Yet Evans makes these two soulmates meet for his own purposes — three really, if you think of the young Bruce Nugent as a distinct character, and the film invites us to do so — separated as they are by time, a generation and cinematic style. There’s a haunting nostalgia in these juxtapositions, partly because the freewheeling and joyful expressions of sex and desire register strongly in the past but not in the present — in one scene, the older Nugent and Perry watch as the younger Nugent judges the make-out skills of two white boys — but it’s not just nostalgia. The film persistently attempts to remake and interrogate the present via the emotional and aesthetic effects created by its formal manipulations of time, narrative, and history.

Bruce Nugent in the film becomes aware of Perry before Perry becomes aware of him. In the film’s opening sequence, over which the words are spoken that began this post, he spots Perry cruising a couple guys on the subway, and getting cruised back, and smiles at the interaction, and at the memories the scene provokes. On the subway platform a few seconds later, the film presents its first brief flashback, as Nugent remembers trying to pick up some hot trade on a bench back in the 20s.

YOUNG BRUCE
Excuse me, I was wondering if you might be interested in having your portrait done?
WHITE MAN #2
(jokingly to his other friend)
Looks like he finally made it man.
(pushing the other
white guy)
Move over, give Mr. Hollywood some room.
BLACK MAN
(to Young Bruce)
What’s in it for me?
YOUNG BRUCE
Well, the pleasure of giving me pleasure for one and the ability to see the reflection of your beauty through my eyes for two. Isn’t that enough?
The Black man looks at him skeptically. Bruce hands him the
note.
YOUNG BRUCE
You can either come or not. It’s up to you.
Opening the sheet of paper he sees Bruce’s name and address with a date and time. He looks up as Young Bruce smiles walking through the train doors.

  • Excerpted from Evans’ original screenplay

In the present, Perry doesn’t notice Nugent and so from the outset he’s like a ghost — although one that’s aspiring to be a mentor — haunting not just Perry’s aspirations as an artist, but as an erotic actor in his own life story.

After the classroom scene, the film cuts to Perry and Nugent walking the streets of Harlem. Nugent wants to show Perry the building where a political and aesthetic revolution took place. During the Harlem Renaissance, the apartment house where Wallace Thurman lived was dubbed “Niggerati Manor” by its residents. As Perry and Nugent go up the stairs of the old abandoned building in the present, which implausibly is still there and its attic still contains relics and mementos from Nugent’s Renaissance past, Nugent turns as if he hears something. At this point the soundtrack features generic “1920s” jazz. There’s a cut to the past; in black and white we’re shown Langston Hughes and a young Nugent coming up the stairs outside. It’s an awkward cut and indicative of Evans’ amateurish approach to film style and the basics of film form. This is his first feature, and he seems to have had much more on his mind than he has the skills to convey. In another scene that’s supposed to take place in some sort of bath house, the interiors are lit like an office. There’s nothing sexy about the shots and I’ve never been in a sex club or sauna that wasn’t dark or dim. I can only account for the glaring lights as a technical compromise. Better and more playful, in another scene in Niggerati Manor, the older Nugent and Perry listen at a doorway in the present, in color, while Wallace Thurman fucks a white trick on the other side of the door in the 20s, in black and white. The scene is played mostly for comedy, not kicks, as the young Nugent is hiding under the bed, mocking the proceedings.

The poetry in Brother to Brother is heard and felt in the script and the performances, if not so much in the images. But setting aside some of the film’s ragged stylistic edges, the dialogic and the historical, exegetical aspects of the film’s discourses about art & legacy, sexuality, race & authenticity, that I’ve outlined above are more mature and realized, and create a unique power, particularly if one is asking or wants to ask similar questions about identity and community as it relates to the experiences of black gay male artists, or to the experiences of the white gay men who love them. I suspect if none of these things mean anything to you, this film probably won’t either. That helps explain, at least partially, the dismissive, disrespectful, and borderline homophobic response in this smart-ass capsule review of the film on the AV Club by Nathan Rabin. Softcore porno? What movie did he see? Talk about frightening the horses…

In contrast to that glib reception, Brother to Brother won a Special Jury Prize at the 2004 Sundance for Evans’ direction, the audience award at the San Francisco International Lesbian & Gay Film Festival, and was named one of the top 10 films of 2004 by the African-American Film Critics Association, among other awards and nominations. On the other hand, it was hard to track this film down in the places I usually look. Most GTMs (gay-themed movies), even obscure ones, can be pirated from multiple sources, but not this one.

Upon release, Brother To Brother was lauded and welcomed. Now it seems to have been forgotten, sadly like Nugent himself. In addition, my copy of the film was oddly cropped and in the wrong aspect ratio. I have had similar problems of access with other important films depicting a black gay experience, including the documentary, Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin and Ernest R. Dickerson’s flawed but powerful crime/courtroom drama, Blind Faith, produced for Showtime in 1998. The former is readily available on DVD via Amazon, but the latter only in a used VHS copy. Their lack of availability makes no sense if the works were judged on artistic merit and value, and there are plenty of other lesser GTMs with mainly white actors that are easily downloadable from multiple sources. But I still hesitate to attribute the lack of recognition to simple racism. It is that, but it’s also ignorance and myopia and a laziness of perspective. How else to explain Rabin’s review cited above? Sure, the film depicts sexual situations, most of which cut to black before anything sweaty happens, but I wonder if I were to bother to count them and compare them to any other straight movie with sex scenes, would there be any difference? Would Rabin describe those movies in a different way, or with equal disdain?

If it seems like I’m giving some elements of the film — the performances, the direction of actors and the script — short shrift, it’s not because there’s nothing there but only because I want to make a case for Brother to Brother not just being an engaging film but also a serious, even an important one. But there are plenty of other pleasures. Director Rodney Evans does script beautiful dialogue, or perhaps it’s more accurate to describe them as small monologues exchanged between characters. My favorite of these occurs between Nugent and a bartender as he talks about meeting Perry, describing him as someone he’s known all his life. Robinson is especially good here, revealing a character who’s a veteran of many wars and so far beyond self-pity that he assuages his own pain only through empathy with the pain of others. Like several scenes before it, particularly between Perry and his straight best friend Marcus, played by the always-engaging Lawrence Gilliard Jr., Evans directs his actors with a sensitivity not only to the characters’ histories but to the artistic and political histories which surround and support them.

Bartender: Well, well…ha ha ha, you look happy tonight…

Nugent: I met somebody, somebody who reminds me of what it felt like to fall in love.

B: Uh oh, sounds dangerous.

N: You ever start talking with someone and feel like you’ve known them forever, their entire past and future flashes right before your eyes, your heart starts beating faster. You know how hard their life is gonna be, and it just tears you up inside.

I just listen. And stared at ‘im. And I wanted to hold him.

B: All right. Here we go.

N: I looked down…at my hand…and thought to myself…where’d this come from? You ever think like that? Like, what’s a hot piece of ass like me doing trapped in this old man’s body.

B: I think it. And it’s usually right before I do something I know I’m gonna regret.

N: But you usually do it anyway.

B: Oh, you got that right.

N: Here’s to lost beauty. May it always be nearby, with the potential to keep you warm.

Nugent and Perry’s relationship remains non-sexual, and Platonic in the classical sense, but Perry does make a concession of sorts, an offering of himself to Nugent — he allows him to paint his portrait shirtless, and paints Nugent’s portrait in return. Mackie’s understated and intellectual performance serves the self-conscious and introspective character well throughout the movie, but in this scene Mackie shows something new — generosity and embarrassment. Perry loses, if only for a few instants, his self-possession and self-pity in order to grant a wish to a colleague, a compadre, to make a more material connection rather than simply a rhetorical one. They become more than just brothers; they become lovers of another kind, and their portraits a memorial to that taxonomy.

Through him I learned the complexity of what was inside me was also outside, if I was willing to look deeper. With words and images, I could convey the truth of my experience, putting it down and passing it on.
Perry

Elderly? I believe the word you’re looking for is: Legendary.
Bruce Nugent, taking exception to a certain adjective.

For more on Richard Bruce Nugent, including all his writing, click here.

To buy or watch Brother to Brother, click here for Amazon, or here for TLA Video.