- "Quaring" Black Manhood in Brother to Brother:A Film Review Essay
Released at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival, Rodney Evans's Brother to Brother is a film linked not only in name, but in context to a rich tradition of works centered on the experiences of black gay men. Specifically, the title evokes Essex Hemphill's edited anthology of the same name. Published in 1991, Brother to Brother: New Writings by Black Gay Men compiles the works of writers and poets from Melvin Dixon to Charles I. Nero. The anthology's black gay male camaraderie theme undoubtedly echoes through the on-screen exchanges of the young painter Perry Williams and the aging Harlem Renaissance poet Richard Bruce Nugent.
Yet even as Brother to Brother's title invokes themes of black gay male solidarity, it also calls attention to the black male hetero/queer binaries. Indeed, the title and film signify on the heteronormative rhetoric of Black Nationalist movements that have tethered straight masculinity to black authenticity and empowerment, meaning that gay identity was not only socially unacceptable but also counterrevolutionary. By signifying on this radically gendered discourse of black (straight) male solidarity, the film exposes the gendered problems of Black Nationalist postures and shines a light on black men's experiences across hetero/queer lines.
Usefully troubling Black Nationalist discourse on black manhood and cultural authenticity, the film's reliance on static hetero/queer binaries to frame queer resistance movements reproduces rather than explodes prescriptive, one-dimensional notions of black manhood. With an eye toward troubling queer political stances that propagate hetero/queer binaries, this film review [End Page 269] essay reconsiders the portrayal of the rifts between black gay and straight men in Brother to Brother. To wit, Perry Williams's, the film's protagonist, view of intraracial black gay victimization in the film is shaped as much by his encounters with black heterosexual men as it is by his relationships with fellow black gay men such as Nugent. The film encourages viewers to see the potential for progressive black male hetero/queer relationships through Perry's close bond with a childhood friend and mutual art aficionado Marcus. Marcus stands as Brother to Brother's lone example of non-homophobic black male sexuality.
Though the film strives to bridge divides between black gay and straight communities, the privileging of Perry's perspective of black heterosexual males ultimately cements separation. Close inspection reveals that, apart from his relationship with Marcus, all of Perry's relationships with black straight men are strained, a fact that is undoubtedly the consequence of his lived experience with homophobic, black male violence. Subsequently, the film's tendency to affix static identities to black straight men without consideration of their intersectional positionalities exposes an overdetermined outlook. By privileging Perry's thin perspective on black masculinity and victimization, the film perpetuates stock gendered depictions that identify straight black men as the chief instigators of virulently homophobic, heterosexist, and hyper-violent assaults against black gay men.
Cathy Cohen's use of queer theory and black feminist intersectional approaches in "Punks, Bulldaggers, And Welfare Queens: The Radical Potential of Queer Politics?" offers a useful framework for interrogating the insularity of the queer agenda in Brother to Brother. According to Cohen, the problem of queer theory is its tendency to privilege hetero/queer binaries that create separations between communities of gay and straight individuals whose mutually disempowered positions should in fact unite them:
Queer politics has often been built around a simple dichotomy between those deemed queer and those deemed heterosexual. Whether in the infamous "I hate Straights" publication or in queer kiss-ins at malls and straight dance clubs, very near the surface in queer political action is an uncomplicated understanding of power as it is encoded in sexual categories: all heterosexuals are represented as dominant and controlling and all queers are understood as marginalized and invisible.1
Cohen chastises queer advocates—usually white, economically privileged gays and lesbians—who nurture these oppositional dynamics. She asserts that the actual method for determining who is an ally to queer movements should not be based solely on one's sexuality, but rather on a combination of intersecting factors...