Birth of the Cool

Photo: Constanza Mirre/ITVS; Illustration by Christopher Sleboda

We first meet young, black, gay, artistic Perry (Anthony Mackie) in a college seminar about the civil-rights movement and the sixties, where his professor quotes James Baldwin on “the fire next time.” Much later in writer-director Rodney Evans’s elegy to past Harlems—to camaraderie and the magic show of identity-making—Perry will quote this same Baldwin back at the professor and his fellow students. Originally, Baldwin was trying to explain to a bumptious Eldridge Cleaver that he had experienced almost as much prejudice because of his sexual preference as he had because of his skin color. Nobody in Perry’s seminar wants to hear this.

But Perry has meanwhile made the acquaintance of an elderly, poetry-quoting client at the homeless shelter where he clerks. There really was a Bruce Nugent, who actually edited Fire!!, a radical literary magazine that published the fiercest young writers of the Harlem Renaissance. Briefly, in the late twenties and early thirties, they had all been geniuses together, before they were separated by their careers and the Depression sent white people scurrying back downtown again. And besides being geniuses, some of them had also, amazingly, been gay.

Perry, whose father refuses even to speak to him, has a lot to learn from Nugent, who has also been evicted from his own history. We flash back, of course, in black and white, of course, with, of course, a jazzy soundtrack, to those giddy days of Renaissance. From Langston Hughes (Daniel Sunjata), a young Nugent received kindness. From Zora Neale Hurston (Aunjanue Ellis), he learned how to listen. Wallace Thurman (Ray Ford) taught him that words were weapons. All this he passes on to Perry, along with courage and fraternity.

Brother to Brother, which won a Sundance Special Jury Prize in 2004, is a surprise guest under the public-television Independent Lens umbrella, where we usually find documentaries. But it is more than welcome, full of generous quotations and ancestor worship—a memory book, a bildungsroman, and practically a palimpsest, with the past written over but not at all erased, still signifying. It belongs between Albert Murray’s autobiographical Scooter novels, which followed a member of the Talented Tenth from Alabama who made comrades of Ralph Ellison and Romare Bearden, and Tongues Untied, the Marlon Riggs collage of skits, rap, camp, memoir, newsreel footage, and music video about being male, black, gay, HIV-positive, and doubly disdained—by straight black activists with no time for gays, and by a gay white subculture with no time for “race problems.”

How cautionary it is even to remember Tongues Untied. Back in 1990, it was a pipsqueak issue in the Culture Wars between Pat Buchanan and common sense. Today, while a bluesy thank-you note like Brother to Brother can slip through at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the far rawer Tongues Untied would have as much chance of showing up on regressive American television as would a telethon for Al Qaeda or, even worse, Planned Parenthood.

In case you need an actual documentary, dozens of good ones are on their summer way. FX cable launches an ambitious series by Morgan Spurlock called 30 Days: The first (June 15; 10 to 11 P.M.) goes to Ohio to try to live on minimum wage; while the second (June 22) shows what happens when you take a human growth hormone purported to be “anti-aging.” … Same Sex America (June 27; 8 to 9:30 P.M.; Showtime) goes to Massachusetts for the weddings of seven gay and lesbian couples, after which the sky doesn’t fall down nor the earth convulse… . Twist of Faith (June 28; 10 to 11:30 P.M.; HBO) examines the damage done by a sexually abusive priest to a teenage boy who trusted him, and also to the Catholic town when this little boy, grown up to be a firefighter, sues the Church… . Punk: Attitude (July 9; 10 to 11:30 P.M.; IFC) is for anybody wondering what really happened on the road to Nirvana and everybody who actually misses the Dead Kennedys, the Ramones, the Sex Pistols, and especially the Clash. Chrissie Hynde, I am happy to report, is still very much snarling.

Brother to Brother
Directed by Rodney Evans.
Channel 13. June 14, 10 P.M.

Birth of the Cool