“Brother to Brother” And then Some: Rodney Evans Flashes on the Harlem Renaissance
by Brandon Judell
Name three films in the last decade where the hero was intelligent, black, gay, and could paint. How about one flick with an African-American homosexual that wasn’t an offensive comedy? Well, there were a few. You’ll just have check your indie guides for hours to discover them.
Thankfully, Rodney Evans, the recipient of the Independent Feature Project‘s Gordon Parks Award for his screenplay “Brother to Brother,” has added another one to the guides by directing his acclaimed screenplay.
The story hinges on the sensitivities of Perry (Anthony Mackie), a young man thrown out of his house for getting it on with a guy in his family’s basement. Now, not only does he have to cope with his queerness and pay the rent, Perry is figuring out what it is to be black and proud. Can these two identities mesh into a happy whole? They can once the put-upon collegiate meets Bruce Nugent (Roger Robinson), a survivor of the Harlem Renaissance. Soon the wise old man’s memories of Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes become Perry’s. Yes, being queer, black, and having to study doesn’t have to be a curse. Get out the party hats.
To get more insight into “Brother to Brother,” indieWIRE sat down with Evans, an attractive young man, in a Greenwich Village restaurant that doesn’t serve soy milk.
indieWIRE: Now there were sometimes when I wanted to just slap Perry and say, “Get over it, hon!”
Rodney Evans: Uh-huh. (Long silence)
iW: Perry seems to be undermining his own happiness. He quickly becomes so politically severe that he is rejecting everyone who doesn’t have the same consciousness as he does.
RE: Undermining his own happiness?
iW: With the white boy.
iW: Here there’s this beautiful, well-behaved, bisexual, white hunk who wants him. I think his name is Jim. Well, Jim happens to say to Perry after a night of good sex, “I love your black ass,” and Perry freaks.
RE: “Sweet black ass.”
iW: That can come off as racist, but the way Jim said it, it was as if he were saying, “I adore your beautiful brown eyes.”
RE: You can read the “ass” remark several ways.
RE: You know I really don’t kind of judge the character. I mean I really try to kind of authentically capture the complexity of a situation like that. I wasn’t interested in having one person being the bad character and one person being the good character. I think that specific scene you’re talking about is read in a lot of different ways depending on the kind of subjective view point of the person that’s watching the movie. So I’m not really the person to kind of say that there’s one way to look at that scene, and this is it! Do you know what I mean?
I like the fact it’s read in different ways. I thought of the character as going through this really harsh experience of being thrown out of his house for being gay, and having to kind of form a surrogate families, and trying to figure out how to trust people after an experience like that happens. That’s the perspective the character was coming from, and I think there’s a sort of a lack of trust intrinsic to the relationship he’s having with Jim that sort of eats away at the relationship. I don’t think it’s just that comment. I think it where they’re both coming from. It’s complicated, and that’s good.
iW: Decades ago I was researching an article for the Village Voice about the emotional state of the black gay male. I found, not unexpectedly, that not only did he experience homophobia from the black community, he was cold-shouldered by racist white gays. Have matters changed a lot in the past 20 years?
RE: I don’t like to make these sweeping generalizations about how things have changed. I think that that is very prevalent. I actually did a short film about race in the gay community. I actually went to a predominantly black gay bar and a predominantly white gay bar. I went to both with a white gay man and a black gay man. They were wired with hidden cameras, and they attempted to kind of engage people that they were attracted to. It was really interesting to me the kinds of things that got communicated through glances and gestures. Just the different attitudes.
So doing that film actually proved to me that yeah, it is really difficult being the minority in a situation like that, being looked at as the “other.” Being dismissed because you’re not of the majority. That really came through in just like body language and glances in that film. It sort of forces audience members to be in the position of the subject because the person wearing the camera, the people are sort of looking at him and looking away. You’re really forced to be in the position of the person kind of having those experiences.
iW: I believe Fassbinder once had the rights to “Giovanni’s Room.” Is that a book you would like to film?
RE: Not particularly. (Laughs disdainfully.) That’s not a book that I read that I was really into. It’s not something that screams out at me to option the rights.
iW: Is there a chance your next film might just be about white characters or Asian characters?
RE: Sure. I’m open to that. I think that there is a really wide spectrum of stories that I’m interested in. You know it just sort of depends what I get inspired by. Right now I’m so immersed in making sure that this film gets out to audiences that I think really need to see it. That’s my job. I haven’t moved on to the next thing.
iW: You should talk to Sandi Dubowski (“Trembling Before G-d”).
RE: He’s a very good friend of mine.
iW: He certainly knows how to push a film to death. Now I haven’t seen “Ray” yet, but from the buzz it seems it will do just fine. But it, like your film, seems to be filling a vacuum. Do you think there will always be just three or four serious films with black subject matter per year?
RE: I would like to think that more films like this can be made. And I think if a film like this can be released across the country and does good box Office… Ultimately Hollywood is about making money. What I learned from sending the script out to people in the industry was that when it came to black filmmakers, they really wanted you to fit into a very specific kind of formula. It was either the trite romantic comedy or it was the Gang Banging in the Hood, Part Ten. If you weren’t working in those specific kinds of genres, the doors weren’t open to you. I think it really actually hurt for me to be going out with the script that was different and innovative, that people had never seen before.
They do really like to have a precedent for a black film. They need to say like “Okay, this is similar to ‘Barbershop’, and ‘Barbershop’ did X million dollars, and if we put this kind of advertising budget in it and put X person it, we’re pretty much guaranteed to make X amount of money.” I think that black filmmakers come up against those kind of obstacles more than other filmmakers.
iW: What was this film shot on?
iW: And it’s blown up to…
RE: 35. It’s pristine. (He laughs)
iW: Did you ever think of shooting in digital? Or did it never come up?
RE: No, I thought about it, and the producers kind of presented that as an idea because it’s a low budget film. I thought because of the period elements that it was born to be shot on film. I wanted to have people really feel like they were witnessing events during the Harlem Renaissance. I felt like film was apt to convey that more than digital video. I feel like digital video tends to give you that kind of documentary feel, a very contemporary modern kind of feel. and I also wanted the film to have a certain kind of visual poetry. I though it was important to have a look that kind of related to the themes. All of that called for film to me.
iW: Was it shot around Brooklyn?
RE: It was shot all over really. Some of it was in Brooklyn. Most of it was in Harlem actually on the actual streets where the writers lived. Some of it was on the Lower East Side. Whatever locations worked that we could get for free.
iW: How long have we been talking? I have no sense of time.
RE: Me neither.