THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


When you look at issues of civil rights, it’s amazing how far we’ve come, and it’s also amazing how far we haven’t come. The days when there were separate bathrooms and drinking fountains for African-Americans are thankfully gone. However, few would deny that institutional racism still exists. A more open, but no less insidious, form of prejudice exists toward gays. The new film Brother to Brother examines what it’s like to be both black and gay, suggesting a double-barreled prejudice exists. There may have been other movies dealing with this subject but I have not seen them. Despite some weak plotting, the movie earns points for tackling the issue head-on.

Anthony Mackie (recently seen in Spike Lee’s She Hate Me) stars as Perry, an African-American college student who is gay. Perry has a lot of anger and hurt inside, mostly because his parents shunned him when they learned of his homosexuality. Another problem is the fellow student who exhibits an open hostility toward him. All Perry wants is to find acceptance and love – things he hopes he will find in his somewhat hesitant new romantic interest. When that relationship doesn’t quite work out, Perry’s feelings of insecurity continue to grow.

During this time, he befriends Richard Bruce Nugent (Roger Robertson), a talented but forgotten writer who is also black and gay. (The real Nugent died in 1987.) Nugent takes Perry to an old building and recounts stories (seen in flashback) in which he and some other writers banded together during the Harlem Renaissance. Those writers are Langston Hughes (Daniel Sunjata), Wallace Thurman (Ray Ford), and Zora Neale Hurston (Aunjanue Ellis). Each of them has felt the sting of prejudice in one of its many forms. Perry is inspired by the stories of these writers breaking down barriers; he takes comfort in knowing that others have shared his experience. Ultimately he is moved to accept himself as never before and to express his feelings in a newly impassioned way.

Brother to Brother is, to put it bluntly, a slow movie. It mostly consists of people standing around talking. There’s not a lot of dramatic thrust here. At times, it feels almost like the movie is running in slow motion; you wait for something very dramatic to happen, yet it never does. You can almost imagine a different director – Spike Lee, perhaps – taking this material and giving it edge or intensity. As it stands, Brother to Brother never really breaks out of the confines of being talky.

Whatever the film lacks in pacing, it makes up for thematically. One of the interesting things the picture suggests is that there is a general prejudice against homosexuality among some in the African-American community. Therefore, when one is both black and gay, there is bias from whites but also sometimes from blacks. (As I watched the film, I thought of the often-homophobic comedy of the Wayans brothers.) Perry is a young man trying to deal with these kinds of prejudices while still remaining true to himself. I respect writer-director Rodney Evans’ attempt to grapple with the subject.

Brother to Brother has strong performances from Anthony Mackie and Roger Robinson. The actors build a believable mentor/student bond on screen. It is also quite interesting to see the film’s depiction of life during the Harlem Renaissance, when these talented writers supported each other when many others wanted to marginalize them. Had the film possessed a little more energy, it would have been easier for me to recommend it across the board. I can’t quite do that, but I will say that there’s definitely an audience out there who will embrace the things that Brother to Brother is about. By giving voice to some important ideas, it could potentially reach a young Perry out in the audience.

( 1/2 out of four)

Brother to Brother is unrated but contains sexual content and adult language. The running time is 1 hour and 30 minutes.

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