American literature courses that touch on the Harlem Renaissance are certain to focus on Langston Hughes while tying in African American art, theater, and music and the flowering of culture and radical intellectualism that exploded in 1920's Harlem. Some courses may even touch on other poets of that movement like Claude McKay and Countee Cullen or writers like Wallace Thurman and Zora Neale Hurston, but few (if any) will cover Richard Bruce Nugent. Nicknamed the "Gay Rebel of the Harlem Renaissance." Nugent courageously dared to flaunt his homosexuality long before such openness about sexuality was acceptable.
Nugent's days of obscurity under the "blue smoke garments" he wrote about are being lifted by Rodney Evans' film Brother to Brother, which was awarded the Special Jury Prize at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival and is now available on DVD. Truly a labor of love, Evans took six years to produce his groundbreaking drama--most unique for taking the time to develop his nuanced and conflicted characters, to handle issues of homophobia adroitly, and refusing to resort to gay stereotypes for his talented African-American actors.
Brother to Brother first introduces us to young collegiate artist Perry (Anthony Mackie) living on the edges of New York City's black community and gay community after his father has kicked him out of the house and disowned him for his sexuality. Closeted and lonely, Perry has one trusted longtime friend Marcus (Larry Gilliard Jr.) who knows his situation, but Marcus is straight. Perry longs for a deeper relationship--a boyfriend. Equally awkward and curious about such relationships, white classmate Jim (Alex Burns) could be the special guy, but things don't work out as hoped.
Instead, Perry becomes fascinated with an elderly man that he keeps encountering--on the subway, in a homeless shelter, outside his apartment building. Discovering that the eloquent street sage is Bruce Nugent (Roger Robinson), the Harlem Renaissance poet who penned "Smoke, Lilies, and Jade," Perry recognizes a kindred spirit despite their generational differences. The older man revisits a now decrepit townhouse that was once a vital center for the Renaissance, and soon we revisit Nugent's youth (in black and white cinematography) and follow his pioneering struggles as a gay rebel striving to make his artistic mark on the world along with comrades Langston Hughes and Wallace Thurman.
It's an obvious, but effective parallel story construction that gives Perry greater confidence to face his own challenges, demonstrating the value of connecting with our historical and cultural past. But the film never stoops to cliché and formulaic solutions. Intellectually sound, the heavily researched project makes us feel like its lifted magically from archive footage, yet it also retains emotional resonance--both Bruce and Perry must fight against the additional layers of prejudice thrust upon a gay African-American. And the most brutal homophobic attacks are likely to come from within the African-American community. It's a lonely struggle, yet Perry recognizes that hope remains.
Both men have longed for the emotional and physical satisfaction that a sexual tryst brings, yet feel the confusing emptiness that results if the lover has only lusted for his black body. Although many will feel that the film meanders far too slowly, Brother to Brother provides a satisfying original journey that is well worth checking out for its sincerity and refreshing honesty that is brought to life by strong performances of the two leading actors. It's a film that American literature professors should strongly consider; not only does it illustrate the attitude and lifestyle of the Harlem Renaissance and the originators of revolutionary literary journal, Fire, but the film is certain to inspire some students to tackle their own original research.