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Evans: Talking Brother to Brother
by Andrew Davis
2004-12-08

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Rodney Evans will be at Landmark for a Q&A after the 7 p.m. show and introduce the 9:10 show both Friday and Saturday, Dec. 10-11.

[ The complete version of this interview is in the December Identity, available online at www.WindyCityMediaGroup.com . ]

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 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?

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.

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. 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.

... 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.

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?

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. ... 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: [ Brother to Brother won the Special Jury Prize at Sundance and the Grand Jury Prize at the Philadelphia Gay and Lesbian Film Fest. ] Did you expect this response?

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.

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 Mackie has about four or five movies in the can, including a Clint Eastwood movie with Morgan Freeman and Hilary Swank.


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