Brother is awaiting a UK release date.
“Once he showed me his place in the sky. That hydro pole in a parking lot all weed-broke and abandoned. Looking up you’d see the dangers of the climb. The feeder lines on insulators, the wired bucket called a pole-pig, the foot-holds rusted bad and going way into a sky cut hard by live cables. You’d hear the electricity as you moved higher, he warned me. Feel it shivering your teeth and lighting a whole city of fear inside your head. But if you made it to the top, he said, you were good. All that free air and seeing. The streets below suddenly patterns you could read”. – David Chariandy ‘Brother’ (2017)
Like the opening of Chariandy’s award-winning 2017 novel, the loud buzz of electricity from overhead power lines fills the first frames of Clement Virgo’s hauntingly beautiful adaptation of Brother. Fear and danger hang in the air as Michael (Lamar Johnson) and his older brother Francis (Aaron Pierre) slowly make their way up the rusted tower, the electric buzz becoming louder as they climb. But they have each other, and Francis is not about to let anything happen to his younger brother. The year is 1991, and the place is Scarborough, Toronto, and while the electricity surrounds Francis and Micheal as they climb, they have each other, and nothing can break their bond of brotherly love but the streets below.
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Virgo’s poetic, powerful and faithful adaptation unfolds over three distinct periods in the lives of Michael, Francis and their hard-working single mother, Ruth (Marsha Stephanie Blake). From the outset, it’s clear that the streets are unsafe, and despite his mother’s reassurance as a child, the now older and wiser Francis knows he has to protect his mother and younger brother from the violence surrounding them. Here Virgo seamlessly threads themes of sexual awakening, music, love and community with conversations on racism and masculinity as a powerful brotherly bond is violently taken away.
Stylistically many will draw parallels to the work of Barry Jenkins, Steve McQueen and Trey Edward Shults. But Virgo’s Brother carries its own unique and poetic voice as discussions on grief, masculinity and love are unpacked through a heartwrenching exploration of the inner-city Black experience and the personal and social toll of oppression.
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Aaron Pierre’s Francis is strong and streetwise but also vulnerable – the little boy who used to suffer nightmares still housed in the man’s tall, muscular and outwardly confident frame. Here his relationship with the loving Jelly (Lovell Adams-Gray) is exquisitely tender in construct, but Francis’ sexuality is never the centre of his fears; in fact, it’s his stabilising force alongside the love of his mother and brother.
Meanwhile, Lamar Johnson’s Michael is thoughtful, caring and often unconfident; he wears his feelings and emotions with pride while tentatively wooing the supportive and loving Aisha (Kiana Madeira), only for them to separate as tragedy strikes in 1991. However, Aisha’s return to Scarborough in 2001 opens the door to healing for Michael, who is still haunted by the events ten years before.
Brother is a genuinely stunning ensemble drama, with every performance award-winning, but it’s Pierre and Johnson who light up the screen. Every interaction between them feels authentic, their brotherly bond built on shared hopes and dreams, Caribbean culture, community, music and love. But the unspoken moments between Pierre and Johnson carry the most power, from Michael’s silent acknowledgement that Jelly is far more than a friend to his brother to Francis’ protection of Michael at a bus stop.
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With stunning sound design, a beautiful score by Todor Kobakov and the rich Jamaican-inspired colour design of Guy Godfree, Virgo’s film captures the atmosphere of its setting beautifully. Here Scarborough is not a social prison but a community attempting to rise above the oppression and gang violence surrounding them. Here we find hope and a longing for peace despite discrimination, segregation, stifled opportunities and violence. While we know the story is one of tragedy from the outset, Virgo never allows his film to wallow in sadness in one of the best literary adaptations in recent memory.
Brother is gritty, tender and compelling, a universal story of brotherly love, family and friendship that isn’t afraid to challenge outdated notions of masculinity while offering us a searing portrait of community oppression and racism. Chariandy’s novel is celebrated as a modern classic, and Virgo’s film is nothing short of a hauntingly beautiful cinematic triumph.
Brother is gritty, tender and compelling, a universal story of brotherly love, family and friendship that isn’t afraid to challenge outdated notions of masculinity while offering us a searing portrait of community oppression and racism.