The power and devastating glory of a Toronto family tale
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This quiet, potent drama starts with the metallic buzz of wires on a hydro tower. Older brother Francis (Aaron Pierre of The Underground Railroad), cool and charismatic, is explaining the risk-reward ratio of climbing up. Sure, you could die trying, but the view is something else, he explains. Michael (Lamar Johnson, whose credits include The Hate U Give and The Last of Us) is a cautious, contained, wary kid, but he can’t help but follow his big brother.
The broad outlines of the story are familiar: the lives of two brothers are tightly bound until a tragic divergence. But director Clement Virgo, working with David Chariandy to adapt the writer’s 2017 novel, gives this material poetic personal weight and gritty socio-political specificity. Brother, which got some attention at last year’s TIFF and has scored 14 Canadian Screen Awards nominations, is set in a Scarborough, Ont., housing complex in the 1990s, with Francis and Michael navigating a close community that is marked by poverty, police brutality and the sometimes life-and-death effects of racism.
Virgo, who made his feature film debut in 1995 with Rude and has since worked extensively in TV, including The Wire and The Book of Negroes, employs a fluid structure, slipping seamlessly through time and memory. We see Francis and Michael as young boys, as high schoolers, and finally 10 years later. All the while, we sense we are circling around a terrible event.wfpyoutube: https://youtu.be/ur3ZH4x5kNs:wfpyoutube
Virgo has changed the central characters’ backgrounds from Trinidadian to Jamaican, which matches his own background. There’s a low-key, lived-in intimacy to the family scenes, underlined by the carefully calibrated ensemble acting.
Mother Ruth (powerful work from Orange Is the New Black’s Marsha Stephanie Blake) is loving and demanding and exhausted in equal measure, often pulling double shifts to get the time-and-a-half she needs to raise her boys on her own. Her need to protect her sons from the pain of her past vies with their need to know more about where they came from.
Francis is the guy everyone in his big urban high school knows. He’s the one who helps his mother, who tries to defend and counsel Michael, telling him, “You got to carry yourself better, not show everything on your face.” We eventually learn what Francis himself is protecting.
Michael, meanwhile, loves his brother but also tries to forge his own way, especially through a delicate relationship with neighbour Aisha (Fear Street’s Kiana Madeira).
In Scarborough, an often-maligned district of Toronto, Virgo finds a kind of scavenged beauty, from woods and ravines that meander around freeway pylons to the eerie beauty of the hydro towers. The family’s apartment is filled with saturated colour — deep blues, greens and oranges that glow as if lit from within. The soundtrack, which ranges from Nina Simone to ’90s hip-hop, and a subtle score (from Todor Kobakov) connect the story as it moves back and forth through three decades.
There is social comment here, on race, masculinity and identity, but it’s always filtered through the characters and their relationships, with long stretches of silence where Virgo relies on his actors to convey layers of family and cultural history through the smallest movements and expressions.
Finally, Brother is about grief – at first embodied and internalized, then expressed and shared — connecting this one story to countless others.
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Studying at the University of Winnipeg and later Toronto’s York University, Alison Gillmor planned to become an art historian. She ended up catching the journalism bug when she started as visual arts reviewer at the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.