Brothers to the max: Brother to Brother star Anthony Mackie talks about how he and the film’s gay director pushed it to the limits
“Every screening we have of Brother to Brother,” says Anthony Mackie excitedly, “the biggest compliment–or the funniest comment–I get is that people meet me and say, ‘I can’t believe you’re not gay.’ Now, that’s a huge compliment. I’ve served my purpose to be true to the character. But at the same time it’s funny.”
Mackie, who happens to be straight, is quite sincere about this–and not in the Seinfeld-ian “Not that there’s anything wrong with that” sense. Just 26 years old and rising fast on Hollywood’s short list, Mackie is well aware of the importance this first starring role has to his career. Yet in his enthusiasm he’s as invested in it as if the were gay.
“Perry, the character that I play, is very confused about being a young African-American gay artist,” Mackie explains. “Once he figures out a bit of that through meeting this older gay man, Perry develops an overwhelming clarity. There are a lot of layers to him.”
There are a lot of layers in Brother to Brother too. Written and directed by Rodney Evans for well under half a million dollars, the Sundance Film Festival prizewinner swept gay filmfests this summer, including becoming the first film ever to win both the Audience and Grand Jury awards for Outstanding Narrative Feature at Los Angeles’s Outfest.
Brother to Brother deals with the friendship between the gay black youth played by Mackie and painter and poet Bruce Nugent, a central figure of the Harlem Renaissance, played by Roger Robinson as an older man and by Duane Boutte [see page 56] in flashbacks to the 1930s. “I went to Juilliard with Rodney,” Mackie says of the film’s writer-director, who is gay. “We’ve been good friends ever since. When I [first heard about the project] I told Rodney, ‘We’ve had To Wong Foo; we’ve had the whole West Village aspect, [I want] to deal with a human being who needs to understand his love and his compassion for another person. That’s the movie I want to make.’ And that’s the movie we made.”
Despite its minuscule budget, Brother to Brother easily navigates a to-and-fro structure that contrasts black-and-white flashbacks of Nugent’s youth–with Harlem Renaissance compatriots Langston Hughes (Daniel Sunjata), Wallace Thurman (Ray Ford), and Zora Neale Hurston (Aunjanue Ellis)–with a full-color present in which Nugent is now the older gay man mentoring the younger one.
Mackie remembers being warned about the perils of playing gay. “Everybody was caught up with me having to kiss Alex Burns,” he says. “And I was like, ‘I’m straight; this is acting.’ Alex is straight too. But we came in together on that and saw that we had to do it 100%.”
His willingness to commit to his characters is just one reason Mackie’s career is off to such a roaring start. He also has a knack for getting the parts that matter. He played Tupac off-Broadway, then filmed Brother to Brother, 8 Mile, and Hollywood Homicide. “Then I went back to Broadway to do Ma. Rainey’s Black Bottom with Whoopi Goldberg and Charles Dutton,” he says. “And then things started to … cascade.”
Mackie took the lead in She Hate Me, Spike Dee’s inevitably controversial extravaganza about a hotshot executive serving as a sperm donor to lesbian couples. “I have definitely covered my gay quotient, haven’t I?” Mackie laughs. “But seriously, I was moved by the humanity Spike was giving to all these lesbian couples. At no point does any woman in the film say, ‘I need a man.’ Instead, you have this man who humbles himself before these women, saying, ‘Look, I need you to help me be come a man so I can help to raise my children.’ You can’t get realer than that.”
Asked about his future plans, Mackie reels off a list of prestige film projects–but with a familiar coda. “I’ve done two Spike Lee movies, a Curtis Hanson movie, a Jonathan Demme movie, a Clint Eastwood movie, and a film that won at Sundance,” Mackie observes. “And people are still trying to consider whether they want to ‘go black’ for one of the roles in their film.”
And that, I remind him, puts him in the same black male star slot that Denzel Washington has occupied until now–a notion that brings a smile to his face but a wariness to his voice.
“The level of ignorance in Hollywood is astounding,” Mackie says slowly. “We have people who know nothing about film, people who think Soul Plane was a good idea. That’s why I’m so very proud of Brother to Brother–the richness of those characters.”
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