Edward Lewis, a prolific producer who worked alongside Kirk Douglas on films including Spartacus (1960), took an unlikely detour into screenwriting for this project, a fictionalized dramatization of the relationship between Black Power activist Angela Davis and a prison inmate whose extended incarceration had racial overtones. In the historical event, Davis was arrested but exonerated for helping the inmate secure firearms that were used in an escape attempt. In the script, which Lewis cowrote with his wife, Mildred (the duo also produced), the characters representing Davis and various convicts are portrayed as victims of an oppressive white culture, employing anarchy and violence as the only available means of self-preservation. The peculiar thing about Brothers, however, is that it lacks the incendiary quality of other films about the Black Power movement. The picture unfolds like a straightforward docudrama, and the tension between agitprop intentions and restrained execution leads to middling results.
Charismatic as always, Bernie Casey stars as David Thomas, a young black man with the misfortune of occupying the passenger seat of a getaway car after his friend unexpectedly robs a gas station. Convicted as an accomplice, David is given a heavier jail term than expected. He becomes radicalized soon after his arrival in prison, because his cellmate, Walter (Ron O'Neal), preaches the Malcolm X gospel. This resonates with David, given his unfair treatment by the legal system. Later, when Walter receives horrible abuse from racist guards, David becomes an activist by printing an underground prison newsletter fomenting rebellion against white authority. David’s activities are brought to the attention of Paula Jones (Vonetta McGee), a college professor/activist who visits David in prison and eventually falls in love with him. The two perceive themselves as revolutionaries whose cause justifies any risk.
Even with supercharged subject matter, Brothers fails to generate much heat. Casey is excellent, subtly conveying righteous anger, and McGee’s combination of beauty and intensity makes her performance highly watchable. Yet director Arthur Barron’s pacing is sluggish, and the soundtrack comprises lots of drab jazz noodling, exacerbating the picture’s overall sleepiness. By the time the movie resolves into a melodramatic finale, it has lost energy instead of gaining it, so the final scenes lack the emotional punch they should have. Nonetheless, Brothers represents a sincere attempt at exploring radical politics from a compassionate and thoughtful perspective. Moreover, Angela Davis’ life experience is so endlessly fascinating that even a clumsy rendering of her exploits has inherent interest.