Director: Clement Virgo
Cast: Lamar Johnson, Aaron Pierre, Marsha Stephanie Blake
Released: 29th September 2023 (UK Cinemas)
The Caribbean Canadian immigrant experience is not often depicted in films that focus on the American family landscape. Brother is, therefore, unique in this sense with its gaze on a close-knit pair of brothers living with their mother in Toronto. The film spans a decade of their experiences covering love, joy, loss and healing. Brother provides a haunting, soulful immersion into the dynamics of being black in the 90s within an inner city estate in Scarborough, Ontario and that constantly overwhelming state of fear that quashes ambitions. As bleak as it is beautiful, Brother is a touching film with sensitive portrayals based on the novel Brother by David Chariady.
Director Clement Virgo adopts a non-linear approach to Brother via flashbacks and flash-forwards to reveal the fate of Michael and Francis, who are opposites in many ways. Francis (Aaron Pierre) is the tall, handsome, muscular, outgoing older brother, whilst Michael (Lamar Johnson) is the younger, shy, petite and sensitive brother. Yet, there is an unbreakable bond between them from the outset. Francis takes Michael under his wing as they treacherously climb up electricity pylons, navigate the ongoing threat of violence in their neighbourhood and antagonistic police officers, and equally share the household burdens as well as being protective of their mother.
Their household seems reminiscent of many Caribbean families with a determined mother sacrificing her life to support her children. Equally, the portrayal of tough love and self-reliant children will resonate with many. It is a familiar environment, mainly if you also have a Caribbean family living in Toronto, with long sweeping takes around the homely apartment. Still, Virgo’s impressive direction never fails to consistently highlight the omnipresent dangers surrounding Michael and Francis. As children, there were the apparent kidnappers and boogeyman monsters to be afraid of, but as teenagers and adults, the risks become connected to the reality in which they belong. Unpredictability embeds itself within the film as Michael, Francis, and their mother Ruth (Marsha Stephanie Blake) are products of their environment, whose innate survival instincts shine through with mesmerising, emotionally nuanced performances.
Setting the film in the early 90s/ 2000, there is only one specific on-screen calendar date; it also places the film within an incendiary political background in the US with footage of the rife race relations tensions. 1991 was a year tinged with police brutality as the world watched the attack on Rodney King. It is, therefore, a fitting year for Brother to depict. Against such a backdrop, Francis faces his inner conflicts as he is tender, behind closed doors with his family, but imposing to the outside world. Ultimately, he wishes to escape the societal barriers placed upon him but receives those constant reminders to ‘know his place’ and is limited by systemic prejudice. Therefore, The struggle is all-encompassing and ultimately frustrating to view as typical perceptions of masculinity are also brought to the fore. Fortunately, it is not all doom and gloom, as Virgo expertly surrounds the film with notions of love and beauty underpinning its framework. Virgo does not lose a beat within the timing of the complex narratives and continuously creates an aura of mystery surrounding the brothers’ fates.
Brother does have his share of dramatic, poignant moments but finds the time to develop love interests, which, to Virgo’s credit, are built up slowly. Virgo revels in the slow pacing to deliver the multitude of themes powerfully. Plus, living vicariously through the introspective Michael creates added dimensions from a younger sibling’s perspective of being on the sidelines. Johnson’s facial expressiveness, as Michael, adds unexpected emotional weight as he attempts to carve out an identity of his own but is equally trapped by circumstance.
The actors’ riveting performances perfectly capture this sense of duality of embracing life’s joy and conflict. All of which makes the barriers they encounter very unsettling to watch. The film directly tackles these notions of prejudices without resorting to stereotypes, eliciting more sympathy for the characters and soulful resonance.
Brother is a beautiful but aching portrait, and when it hurts, the wound is felt deep in many ways as ambition is unnecessarily crushed. This reviewer will continuously seek to play Nina Simone’s Ne Me Quitte Pas (Don’t Leave Me) during those times of despair, to hear Simone’s soulful voice transcending the sadness of the lyrics due to its appearance within the excellent repertoire of music within Brother. Virgo knows how to ratchet up the emotion and will be a talent to seek out after such an impactful film.
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