Review: ‘Brother’

Clement Virgo’s Directorial Debut Masterfully Examines Manhood, Loss, And Being Young And Black In Canada

As a (person who still thinks he’s a) young black man who was raised in the US on hip-hop and geeky things, I’m frequently interested in movies and TV shows that depict young black lives outside of the United States. It’s interesting to observe how people that resemble me conduct their lives in other regions of the world. Shows like Top Boy and movies like Blue Story gave us Westerners a taste of what “the hood” is like in London. It was, therefore, a pleasant invitation to watch how young guys negotiated growing up in Canada and all the unique relationships that arose while Canadian director Clement Virgo’s directorial debut Brother, and adaptation of writer David Chariandy’s novel of the same name.

Brother is considerably more than I expected. Brother explores the connection between Francis (Aaron Pierre) and Michael (Lamar Johnson) while Michael is coming of age in high school and was inspired by 90s hip-hop and reggae, two of my favorite things on the globe! The young men must have each other’s backs and are strongly devoted to and protective of each other because they live with their single mother Ruth (Marsha Stephanie Blake), who must always work to support them, leaving them alone together to navigate life. Living in a housing project in Scarborough (just outside of Ontario), they had to get used to local neighborhood gangs and an overbearing police force on a nightly basis.

Michael is more into books, so he has trouble even dealing with local bullies. Lucky for him his brother Francis is big as hell, and ready to throw down to help his brother. Francis is not so interested in schools. He doesn’t want to get into any gangster stuff, but he’s more interested in music. Shortly after dropping out (with literally months left to graduate and their mother’s disapproval), he moves out and proceeds to work at a Barbershop while working on music.

One interesting and frustrating choice made in Brother is the constant time jumping between the two in high school and the aftermath. Unfortunately, it’s a little confusing to follow, but later in life, “something” happens that causes Francis to be gone and while Michael and their mother are grieving, and their mother Ruth’s cognitive decline as she’s getting older. Whether it’s grief or just from living a life of being an overworked domestic, Michael must take care of his mother alone now, and also have to deal with his own issues related to his brother. Later in Brother, we get to see how Francis must leave, and given the last few years of headlines showing how tough being black in America is as timely as ever!

As we navigate the different time periods in Brother, during Michael’s high school years, he befriends Aisha (Kiana Madeira), a local neighbor in the same housing project. She is also studious like Michael is and the two build a strong connection. They spend most of their young years as two sweet high schoolers in puppy love. But as the years go by, she becomes a great form of support not only for Michael, but also for his mother to help them deal with their grief.

We also get to explore big brother Francis’ love life as well in Brother. He’s painted the stereotypical image of a big strong black man with huge muscles, ready to fight, and living and breathing hip hop. If you remember the 90s, you will know how close-minded we were collectively to the LGBTQ community, but here Francis is just Francis. He and his boyfriend are just a part of “the crew” without so much as a second glance by their friends. Canada’s just more progressive I guess, even back in 1991!

Brother for the most part is a masterful flex by Director Clement Virgo. After all, he’s cut his teeth in TV for decades directing episodes of Greenleaf, The Book of Negroes, Empire, Billions, and even a few episodes of The Wire, so he’s no slouch. But Brother is visually arresting, taking great advantage of the Canadian landscapes and city lines, and just being able to capture your attention with every little detail. One interesting choice was every time a white police officer was shown, the camera also focused on their badge and white skin, almost to make them a faceless army hell-bent on harassing and hunting down black men in this housing project.

In addition to the directing, the acting is incredible. Lamar Johnson was recently nominated for a Guest Actor Emmy for his work as Henry on The Last of Us, and his performance in Brother shows why he’s outstanding. In fact, he’s already received a Canadian Screen Award for Lead Actor for his performance in Brother. The same goes for Aaron Pierre playing Francis. Brother wouldn’t work without their performance and their chemistry. Although they don’t have a strong physical resemblance, you absolutely believe that these two are brothers. Marsha Stephanie Blake as their mother Ruth is also a delight to watch. Throughout the film, she goes from an overworked-but-stern mother, to a shell of her former self in cognitive decline, and the transformation of her performance is incredible to unfold.

The only criticism of Brother would be the time jumps back and forth between the past and the present. It’s jarring at times, and because there’s no establishment of what year the audience is watching, it can be confusing where in the story things are going. The only cue to the year is the choice of hip-hop music that is played in the given scenes. As a 90s hip-hop head, I didn’t miss a thing, but for the uninitiated (or someone who only knows rap songs by someone with “Lil” in their name), it’ll be hard to follow. Brother also runs for two hours and could have possibly cut a few scenes to trim the runtime. There is a subplot centering on climbing up at one electrical substation as a metaphor for “climbing up” and “growing up,” and while visually impressive, it wasn’t one hundred necessary for the film.
Brother is an impressive film. It operates as a wonderful coming-of-age film, while also navigating the complexities of being a young black man in a country that still adheres to white supremacy standards, exploring what it means to be a man, and dealing with loss in a profound way. Dealing with such complex issues would be a tough hill to climb, but being written by Clement Virgo and in his capable hands, it’s almost effortless how good and impactful Bother is.

Brother is currently available in theaters and on VOD.