Released in 1977, near the end of the Blaxploitation wave that crested a couple of years earlier, Brothers is more serious than most entries in the cycle. This is largely due to the historical resonance the story gains from its parallels with the real-life experiences of George Jackson, his brother Jonathan Jackson and his supporter Angela Davis, on whom David, Joshua and Paula are obviously based.
According to a 1977 review of Brothers in The Washington Post, the screenwriters and producers of the film, Edward and Mildred Lewis, contended that the story was based not on Jackson's life alone but also on the experiences of several other "black political prisoners, including the Rev. Ben Chavis, of the Wilmington 10." While there's no reason to doubt this assertion, similarities to Jackson's specific ordeals are too strong to ignore. Like his counterpart in the movie, Jackson was arrested for armed robbery and sentenced to a California prison for an indeterminate term of one year to life. Turning his time behind bars to productive use, he read works by such radical writers as Malcolm X and Frantz Fanon, became a self-taught scholar of revolutionary thought and wrote a large number of letters to likeminded friends and correspondents, many of which were later published in books that spread his ideas far outside the prison walls.
The most dramatic incidents in Brothers are very close to dramatic events in Jackson's life. One takes place when a guard is killed by inmates - he's thrown from the walkway of an upper tier of cells, evidently in revenge for the killing of an unarmed prisoner during a fight in the exercise yard - and David is among those charged with the guard's murder. Another happens when Joshua disrupts a court hearing by pulling a gun, taking hostages, bringing about three deaths and turning Paula into a fugitive, falsely accused of aiding and abetting Joshua, who was working as her bodyguard at the time. A third turning point arrives when David and several other inmates are set up by guards in an escape attempt, sparking the violent climax of the film. These incidents don't transpire exactly as they apparently did in real life, but the movie as a whole gives a plausible account of the tortures and travails undergone by an astute and fiery black activist in a prison system determined to crush him and the views he represents.
Brothers is one of only two theatrical features directed by Arthur Barron, a writer, producer, and director best known for television episodes and documentaries. The film is roughhewn in style, supercharging its relentlessly downbeat prison atmosphere with grainy images and a soundtrack full of the harsh, repetitive noises - many coming from the public-address system, which often sounds like a squawk-box from a nightmare version of M.A.S.H - that assault the ears of inmates from before dawn to long after dark.
The movie's best asset is its well-chosen cast, headed by Bernie Casey, a versatile actor whose prior credits ranged from Jack Starrett's blaxploitation classic Cleopatra Jones (1973) to Martin Scorsese's Boxcar Bertha (1972) and Nicolas Roeg's The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976). He brings tremendous intelligence and charisma to David without downplaying the rage that surges just below the surface of the character's personality. Vonetta McGee is equally strong, smart, and beautiful, making Paula a key figure in the narrative despite the relatively small amount of screen time she gets in this somewhat claustrophobic prison drama. Owen Pace does well with the small but pivotal role of Joshua, and the prisoner who starts David on his road to jailhouse scholarship, Walter Nance, is sharply played by Ron O'Neal, best known as the dope-dealing antihero in Gordon Parks, Jr.'s 1972 Super Fly. Actual prison inmates appear as extras in the film, much of which was shot at the state penitentiary in North Dakota.
In The New York Times review, critic A.H. Weiler praised Casey for a "taut, thoughtful characterization" and said O'Neal was "quietly forceful" as David's jailhouse mentor. But he complained about the fuzziness of some key points in the story-- "Who did kill that white guard? Who did plant those guns in white inmates' hands?" --and wished the problems of sociopolitical hatred were given a more "balanced treatment" in a film "dedicated to venting its outrage unalloyed and largely without benefit of doubt." Writing that the film "probably conveys a raw energy to those who have memories of the George Jackson story," The Washington Post's critic worried that "it may have less dramatic strength" for viewers unaware of its real-life background, and faulted the movie for depending too much on "the power of sequential incidents" rather than "individual response and interaction" with deeper psychological impact.
The flaws of Brothers are less important than the gritty naturalism of John Arthur Morrill's cinematography and the rhythmic drive of Taj Mahal's original score, although the producers lay the music on too thickly, sometimes treating it like a sort of hipster Muzak that drones in the background through entire scenes. In all, Brothers is a dated but pungent reminder that, in Weiler's words, "inhumanity has been a grim fact of jail societies ever since they were invented."
Director: Arthur Barron
Producers: Edward and Mildred Lewis
Screenplay: Edward and Mildred Lewis
Cinematographer: John Morrill
Film Editing: William Dornisch
Art Director: Vince Cresciman
Music: Taj Mahal
With: Bernie Casey (David Thomas), Vonetta McGee (Paula Jones), Ron O'Neal (Walter Nance), John Lehne (McGee), Stu Gilliam (Robinson), Renny Roker (Lewis), Owen Pace (Joshua), Dwan Smith (Kendra), Martin St. Judge (Williams), Ricardo Brown (Horton), Susan Barrister (Tina), John Zaremba (Judge Number Two), Sam Nudell (Attorney Sirrell), John Shay (Judge Number One), Al Turner (Henry Taylor), Joseph Havener (Warden), Samantha Harper (Joan Kline), Richard Collins (Davis Brother), Richard Peck (Davis Brother), Mercedes Alberti (Woman Guard), Thomas Bellin (Guard), Alonzo Bridges (Prisoner), Joe Carlo (Sheriff), David Clover (FBI Agent), Robert Cortes (Student), Carl M. Craig (Jack Browning), Janet Dey (FBI Agent), Oliver Fletcher (Lacy), Sidney Galanty (Balaban), William Gavitt, Jr. (Government Man), Jane Gibbons (Newscaster), Ronald Gold (District Attorney), Jack Haddock (Prisoner), Tim Harris (Guard), Mike Howard (Guard), Traci Hunt (Mrs. Williams), Len Jewell (Mr. Thomas)
By David Sterritt