An art film with a perpetual hard-on—or, alternately, a soft-core film with literary pretensions—Brother To Brother boasts a title that suggests both a gay porno and the kind of stiffly noble public-affairs show that bleary-eyed couch potatoes stumble past at 2 in the morning. Though well-intentioned to a fault, the film packs a strange, ultimately unsuccessful combination of prurience and clumsy identity politics: Its complex issues of race, gender, and sexual identity get confused rather than resolved between the sheets.
Brother To Brother casts Anthony Mackie as a sensitive gay black student-artist struggling to find himself creatively and personally. While working at a homeless shelter, he meets Roger Robinson, a down-and-out veteran of the Harlem Renaissance, now reduced to collecting handouts. Robinson nurses a doomed crush on the dashing younger man, who is entangled in a similarly impossible relationship with a white classmate who fetishizes Mackie's blackness, but seems unsure of his own sexual identity. Over the course of the film, Robinson regales Mackie with stories—recounted in black-and-white flashbacks—of his glory days hanging out with Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and other incendiary Renaissance artists who challenged societal mores with their art and their bohemian lifestyles alike.
Mackie was last seen impregnating hot lesbians in Spike Lee's She Hate Me, which seems fitting, since writer-director Rodney Evans shares Lee's weakness for delving messily into the loaded terrain of sexual and racial politics. Like Lee at his didactic worst, Brother To Brother bites off more than it can chew, inadequately exploring such Big Issues as interracial relationships, the role of homosexuals in the civil-rights movement, and homophobia and gay-bashing within the black community. Evans' script reduces many of the film's supporting characters to billboards for contrasting viewpoints: Mackie understandably resents his white lover for seeing him only as a figurehead of black sexuality, but the film itself suffers from a similar problem, as it offers types and attitudes in place of complex human beings.