Past Is Prologue

Rodney Evans and 'Brother to Brother'

Rodney Evans
Rodney Evans

To be young, gifted, and black involves struggles, Lorraine Hansberry wrote, but how much more of a struggle is it to be young, gifted, black, and gay? That question lies at the heart of Rodney Evans' debut narrative feature, Brother to Brother, winner of a special jury prize at Sundance this year. The film explores it through two men, a painter today and a poet during the Harlem Renaissance, and the uncommon bond that develops between them after they meet, with the poet an elderly man. Evans based the character of Bruce Nugent on an actual figure from the Harlem Renaissance, a writer who worked alongside Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Wallace Thurman on the pioneering arts magazine Fire!! and was among the first black writers to discuss homosexuality.

Rodney Evans: The film started with me writing about personal experiences, and I started to think about what my life would be like if I was living in a different era and confronting these same issues, and that led me to the Harlem Renaissance and specifically to a videotape of Bruce Nugent that I found in the Schomburg Center in Harlem. I was mesmerized by him. He had this amazing scholarly intellect mixed with this street-smart savvy that I hadn't ever seen before. The video was of him toward the end of his life, and he had this amazing ability to synthesize different things, to look back at the Renaissance from the present. So I wanted the film to take on that perspective, balancing the contemporary with the past, and Bruce would be the guide.

AC: So much of the film is about pushing boundaries set by some corner of society: racial taboos, sexual taboos, artistic taboos.

RE: That's what was really exciting to me about this specific subgroup within the Harlem Renaissance. This second generation of younger artists are challenging what black artists are allowed to say. For the first time, people like Bruce Nugent are dealing with homosexuality. Zora Neale Hurston is writing about folklore and black slang. Wallace Thurman is dealing with prostitution. There was very much this collective spirit confronting expectations and saying, "Black art isn't only about uplifting the race and putting our best foot forward. It's about us wanting to do justice to certain experiences we think are really important as well." That was a new and radical idea.

Brother to Brother screens as part of the Emerging Visions program at the Alamo, March 18, 7:30pm.

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