This first dramatic feature by documentarian Evans is an important film but not necessarily a successful one. Though feted at festivals (including SXSW, and as the winner of a special jury prize at Sundance), the film strains to support two storylines linked by the character of Bruce Nugent (Robinson), a Harlem Renaissance poet now living in a homeless shelter staffed by young gay collegian Perry (Mackie, who was recently seen in She Hate Me
). While Perry negotiates a shaky relationship with a white hipster (Burns) and chafes against the homophobia entrenched in African-American political activism, he becomes fascinated by Nugent, who reveals his storied past in flashbacks and memories. Sound like a lot going on? It is, and more’s the pity, for the movie’s narrative ambition, though laudable, weighs it down dramatically. Evans comes alive whenever the film flashes back to the scandalous "rent parties" and bohemian adventures of Nugent’s heyday; atmospheric vignettes filmed gorgeously in black-and-white reveal the publication of Fire!!
, and you can almost smell Zora Neale Hurston (Ellis) smoking as she walks down the street (a scandalous habit, associated with prostitution). You’d almost wish the movie stayed in the past, but for the earnest likability of Perry, who’s put on hold for long stretches of screen time. For their part, the leads are magnificent, and Evans demonstrates skill in directing them. Character actor Robinson lends merry mischief to his portrayal of the aging poet – still spry despite his cane, he has a been-there-done-that weariness that plays well against Mackie’s impetuous youth. Ultimately, the two threads of the story – the straightforward coffeehouse realism (shot digitally) of the present-day and the sepia-tinged, misty flashbacks – compete to the point where it’s hard to stay invested in the characters as people. They seem more like sandwich boards, ideological constructs that talk and walk. The subject matter is so intricate and thought-provoking that it would be perhaps better served by the nonfiction format, or at least a more tightly focused feature; certainly there’s no lack of drama inherent in the fierce cultural flowering of 1920s Harlem, nor in the double-bind of gayness and race. But Evans is so busy building explicit connections among the various issues he raises that the viewer never gets a chance to discover them more organically. (For interviews with the director see austinchronicle.com/issues/dispatch/2004-03-19/screens_feature6.html