Directed by Clement Virgo | Written by Virgo from the novel by David Chariandy | 119 min | ▲▲▲▲△
Clement Virgo is the director of solid dramatic features like the Halifax-set boxing picture Poor Boy’s Game, Lie With Me, and Rude, and quality television like The Wire and Book Of Negroes — he’s carved out an excellent body of work over more than 25 years telling Canadian (and American) stories. Brother can stand amongst his best, a deeply felt tale of the lives of a small family living in Scarborough, the immigrant mother and her first generation Canadian kids, two boys whose experience is detailed over multiple timelines.
One of those moments in time is the sweltering summer of 1991 — it’s one I remember from having spent some of it in Toronto. The brothers (the excellent Lamar Johnson as teen and adult Michael, an actor recently seen in the Alberta-shot The Last Of Us, and Aaron Pierre as the elder, Francis) are exploring their relationship, their loyalty, and their neighbourhood.
Their single mother, Ruth (Marsha Stephanie Blake, powerful) works all the time to earn enough to afford their lives, leaving the boys alone on the regular. We also meet Aisha (Kiana Madeira), who is close to Michael over the years, and DJ Jelly (Lovell Adams-Gray) who’s tight with Francis.
Virgo gracefully cuts back and forth from the boys’ pre-teen lives alone in that apartment watching television, seeing video footage of a convenience-store robbery and Francis barring the front door with a chair, to their teen years, which bring violence and systemic racism — the monolith of racial profiling by white police officers whose faces we never see — and the legacy of poverty, the ways immigrant families struggle.
At times the weight of the film is grim verging on a dirge — moments of community or family joy are fleeting — but the cumulative power of Brother‘s apportioned time shifting is undeniable.
The story Brother tells isn’t the most original — we’ve seen before tales of the ways young men support and protect each other and manage the expectations of their peers and parents — but the way this story is told certainly is.
Cinematographer Guy Godfree gracefully dollies in and tracks his cameras, making the best of deep colours and shadows in the apartment as well as the magic hour light in the tenement canyons and the hydro tower alleys. The moody score from Todor Kobakov helps deliver the tragedy that awaits.
What also distinguishes Brother is that it’s a Canadian film telling this particular story. Traditionally our movies haven’t done a great job bringing forward the narratives of immigrants or visible minorities, which makes this one that much more remarkable.