Brother to Brother opens in Chicago Dec. 10 at Landmark Century Theater.
Pictured Daniel Sunjata as Langston Hughes and Aunjanue Ellis as Zora Neale Hurston. Rodney Evans. Aunjanue Ellis as Zora Neale Hurston. Larry Gilliard as Marcus.
A gay African-American man faces conflict everywhere, including home and school. He bonds with a legendary Black gay poet who is living in a homeless shelter. As their friendship deepens, the artist recounts memories of relationships with various Harlem Renaissance figures, including Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes. Drawing from the old man's past, the young man acquires enough strength to deal with the world on his own terms.
This account is a synopsis of the film Brother to Brother, an award-winning cinematic mosaic that weaves together elements of culture, race, and sexual orientation. Windy City Times recently talked with the movie's director, Rodney Evans, and discussed everything from the trials of making a film to the magnetism of the late actor River Phoenix.
Windy City Times: Who thought of the film's title and why use it?
Rodney Evans: I thought of it. The movie was inspired by this anthology of Black gay writing called Brother to Brother; it was edited by Essex Hemphill. I thought of the film as a cinematic corollary to that book, which looked at Black gay life from different perspectives. I thought the piece was about relationships between Black men; the relationships were not necessarily sexual and the men were not necessarily gay.
WCT: Where did you get the inspiration to use the Harlem Renaissance in your movie?
RE: The inspiration for that came from writing about my different experiences. I started thinking about how things would be in different eras. That led me to the Shomberg Library [ in New York ] , where I did research about the Renaissance.
WCT: How hard was it to keep the Renaissance scenes authentic?
RE: It was very difficult because it was a low-budget [ $650,000 ] independent movie. I looked at films by Oscar Micheaux, who shot films in the homes of people in the Black community. So we tried to capture what people's homes actually looked like.
WCT: What made Anthony Mackie the right choice to play the lead?
RE: He's a brilliant actor. He understood the character [ of Perry Williams ] on a level that other actors couldn't. He was also willing to push himself to uncomfortable levels.
His questions were very astute. The first thing out of his mouth was, 'OK. How queeny is this guy?' It was interesting because the actors who auditioned assumed that, because the character was gay, he was flamboyant and hyper-effeminate—and I never imagined him that way. Anthony didn't rely on stereotypes, but asked questions about the character.
WCT: What do you want people to get from your movie?
RE: First, I want to illuminate this incredibly rich cultural time period called the Harlem Renaissance. When I started researching, it shocked me that there had never been a narrative drama about the Renaissance. It's such a rich time period that I feel that [ a movie about it ] is long overdue.
Second, I think the film is about this relationship between these two Black men of different generations and the transformative power of that friendship. Ultimately, I want people to be moved on an emotional level by the evolution of their relationship.
WCT: In my background reading, I discovered that you said you would like to have worked with River Phoenix. Why?
RE: I thought River was profoundly talented. He did a couple of movies that I found moving and those films really pinpointed a lot of issues that I was dealing with.
One movie was My Own Private Idaho; specifically, that campfire scene with Keanu Reeves spoke to me. River talks about his love for Keanu, who explains that he only sleeps with men for money. To me, there was this communication of the struggle of desire between gay and straight men that I found fascinating. It also reflected something I was going through at the time. River's ability to nail those emotions so clearly was really profound to me—and it turned out that he improvised that scene. I think that there's an equivalent between what Anthony does in Brother to Brother and what River does in that scene.
Then there's a scene in the movie Running on Empty, where he is trying to explain his political activist parents' need to stay underground to Martha Plimpton, who he is in love with. I just think that River was incredibly talented.
WCT: What living actor would you like to work with?
RE: I think Jeffrey Wright is amazing. The scope of what he's done is stunning; to go from Martin Luther King in Boycott to [ the title character ] in Basquiat to his role in Angels in America... is just amazing. I'm also a big Nicole Kidman fan. I also think Angela Bassett is great.
I tend to be an actor groupie. There are a lot of actors who are not well-known who are fantastic; there are people like Harry Lennix, who pushes himself and takes chances.
WCT: Here's a hypothetical: A production company throws an unlimited amount of money at you. What would you make?
RE: [ Chuckles. ] I would probably do a Black historical drama dealing with Black artists in this country. There are projects I'm developing now that are in that vein. I see Brother to Brother as part of that kind of larger project.
WCT: Like part of a series?
RE: Yeah. I'm very interested in different time periods and how Black artists have negotiated social and cultural obstacles to make their work.
WCT: What are the best and worst parts of making a movie? Feel free to classify doing a press junket as the worst.
RE: [ Laughs. ] Raising money is probably the most difficult part, especially for Black movies that don't fit into a certain mold. If the movie doesn't have gangbangers or isn't a trite romantic comedy ...
WCT: ... or isn't Soul Plane 2…
RE: ... or isn't Soul Plane 2, then executives can't put a movie in a specific niche and they don't know how to market it. As a Black filmmaker who's trying to do something innovative, it's scary for [ executives ] to give you the ability to make a movie.
I had to find alternate ways to fund the movie. I went to people who were interested in having the story told—friends, family, and small foundations—and I worked the whole historical angle.
It was a real struggle; it took the better part of three or four years. We shot 25 percent of the film, ran out of money, stopped shooting for a year, used the scenes we shot to raise more money, and called the actors back a year later. Actually, one of the actors didn't want to come back and we had to re-shoot scenes that he had been in. However, I think the people came back because they were really passionate about the material.
The best part of making a movie is seeing how the [ finished product ] can move people, especially on an emotional level. One thing I didn't expect was how much people would be affected. We showed the movie to a predominantly Black literature class at a community college. It was interesting; these hip-hoppers in their late teens and early 20s were comfortable being homophobic—they yelled 'faggot' and groaned when two guys kissed. It was unsettling to them to have a character who was similar to them but who was in these intimate situations with a man. It made them question who they were—but as the film went on, they empathized with him and ended up acting positively. The film forced the students to deal with their internalized homophobia that's force-fed to them through things like hip-hop.
WCT: How did you think this movie would play to Blacks, who are generally perceived as homophobic ?
RE: Seeing the transformation in those students was pretty encouraging. I thought that people who read the works of Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes would gravitate toward the film because they were interested in [ those writers' ] experiences. You don't want to be dishonest about what the film is; it's more a question of emphasis and stressing what's going to be compelling to different kinds of audiences. I think the film plays to so many different people that it taps into this universal feeling, so I'm skeptical about segmenting this film as a 'gay film' or a 'Black film.'
WCT: You talked about encouragement; you have to be encouraged by all of these awards this film has won. [ Brother to Brother has picked up several awards, including the Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and the Grand Jury Prize at the Philadelphia Gay and Lesbian Film Festival. ] Did you have any inkling that the film would have the impact it has?
RE: I really didn't anticipate the reaction; it's been really encouraging and inspiring to do work that hopefully won't be as difficult to get made. It helps to receive awards because it gets the word out about the film. However, at the end of the day, a filmmaker concentrates on the work and tries to tell the story the best way possible in terms of structure, content, form, and performances.
WCT: Any concluding thoughts?
RE: I've been blessed to have been able to tell this story and have an incredible cast of talented actors. Aunjanue Ellis, who plays Zora, is in Ray with Jamie Foxx; Daniel Sunjata, who plays Langston, was in Broadway's Take Me Out [ and was nominated for a Tony ] ; and Anthony Mackie has about four or five movies in the can, including a Clint Eastwood movie with Morgan Freeman and Hilary Swank.