'Brother To Brother': Blacks and Homosexuality

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The award-winning movie Brother to Brother explores homosexuality among African-Americans today, and looks back at the Harlem Renaissance, where a number of the intellectual movement's brightest stars were known to be gay.

FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

I'm Farai Chideya, and this is NEWS & NOTES.

Black history includes contributions from activist Bayard Rustin and author James Baldwin, just two of many prominent gay African-Americans. But the voices of gay activists were often silenced during the civil rights movement and, before that, the Harlem Renaissance. The movie "Brother to Brother" examines this silence. NPR's Allison Keyes has more.

ALLISON KEYES reporting:

We first meet the movie's protagonist, Perry, riding a bus through the streets of contemporary New York.

(Soundbite of "Brother to Brother")

Mr. ANTHONY MACKIE: (As Perry) There are thoughts that have the power to trap me. There's a war inside me.

KEYES: Played by Anthony Mackie, he's a handsome mahogany-colored man with piercing eyes and an intense air. It's clear from the first moments of the film that the world he lives in is having difficulty coming to terms with his homosexuality. In Perry's black studies class, he's confronted with the brutal homophobia of a classmate, as students discuss James Baldwin's book "The Fire Next Time."

(Soundbite of "Brother to Brother")

Mr. MACKIE: (As Perry) James Baldwin wasn't tolerated. I mean, he was basically silenced because him being gay was a threat to the major leaders of the civil rights movement.

Unidentified Man #1: We're talking about activism and political struggles, not what people do with their sex organs.

Mr. MACKIE: (As Perry) This class is about black political struggle, and what I'm saying has nothing to do with that?

KEYES: Writer/director/producer Rodney Evans is a gay black man. He says the messages in this film, which melds the present with the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s and '30s, are relevant today, especially since there's been controversy over whether the struggle for gay and lesbian rights is part of the larger long-term battle for civil rights by people of color.

Mr. RODNEY EVANS (Writer/Director/Producer): The beauty of film is that it helps you to understand someone's experience that's different from your own, and, you know, a lot of those injustices do have very strong parallels. I feel like it becomes harder to demonize people that are different from you.

KEYES: Veteran actor Roger Robinson plays Richard Bruce Nugent, a Harlem Renaissance African-American gay painter and writer.

(Soundbite of "Brother to Brother")

Mr. ROGER ROBINSON: (As Richard Bruce Nugent) He blew a cloud of smoke. Soon, the smoke would rise, and he would clothe the silver smoke in blue smoke garments. Truly, smoke is like imagination.

KEYES: He weaves a verbal spell, which gives Perry a glimpse into the Bohemian past. Through Nugent, Perry gets to eavesdrop on a circle of creativity, including Langston Hughes, Zora Neal Hurston and Wallace Thurman. Robinson was in the last play Hughes produced for Broadway. He says he brought that knowledge, along with all his craft, to bear on capturing the essence and humanity of Nugent's luminescent character.

Mr. ROBINSON: Rodney was very particular in the kinds of emotional things that he required, and I think I understood the essence of this gay rebel who was way, way before his time.

KEYES: In "Brother to Brother," Hughes' relationship with Nugent and the other residents of the Harlem brownstone they called Niggeratti Manor is depicted in black and white footage. Hurston, Thurman, Nugent and Hughes decide to found a literary journal called "Fire!" in 1926. The whole point of the publication is to shock and break with the black literary establishment.

(Soundbite of "Brother to Brother")

Unidentified Man #2: We actually have this new idea for a journal we've been bouncing back and forth.

Unidentified Man #3: Something like Crisis?

Unidentified Man #2: Bite your tongue. No more weeping and moaning for respect from white people. This is about younger artists, something with spunk and passion.

Unidentified Man #4: Sounds like we've all been having the same conversation.

KEYES: But the NAACP is outraged by the content in the journal, which includes the short story by Nugent, "Smoke, Lilies and Jade." It's about a young artist's sexual encounter with another man. Director Rodney Evans says there were parallels between his life and the life of this legendary man who was unknown by many.

Mr. EVANS: I was really just, you know, taken by, A, just his eloquence and just the poetic ways that he would say things and just the breadth of experiences that he had gone through. I really just fell in love with him through this process of researching his life.

(Soundbite of "Brother to Brother")

Unidentified Man #5: Get out! Get out!

KEYES: There's a violent scene where Perry, in the present day, is thrown out of his house when his father catches him with a man, and there are mild gay sexual encounters between Perry and a white classmate.

Mr. EVANS: You know, I think I was ultimately trying to stay true to the experiences of the characters, you know what I mean, and those two central characters are gay and sexualized human beings and I think, you know, from listening to Bruce, you really do get the sense of him as a sexual being.

(Soundbite of "Brother to Brother"; of fight)

KEYES: There's a horrific scene where Perry is badly beaten by a classmate and others because he's gay, but his friend, a now elderly Bruce Nugent, comes and forces him to get up and go on with his life. In a sense, as Robinson muses, they rescue each other.

Mr. ROBINSON: Now that you mention it, I can see where one could draw that conclusion. It was just my need to--my character's need to get this young man living again.

(Soundbite of music from "Brother to Brother")

KEYES: Roger Robinson thinks that Richard Bruce Nugent would have loved this film.

Mr. ROBINSON: It's like he was a pioneer, a revolutionary, someone outside the norm, and this film certainly speaks to all of those things. It's unlike any black film you will ever see. It is not the things that we're used to or that Hollywood sells us. It is really unique in the sense that it has a literary value.

KEYES: "Brother to Brother" is being released today on DVD. Allison Keyes, NPR News, New York.

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