Under TIFF’s Next Wave Selects as a part of their Special Presentations programming was the premiere of the Clement Virgo film Brother. Adapted from the David Chariandy novel of the same name, Brother is a coming-of-age story about two brothers and their struggles from being entangled in a community riddled with gun violence, as well as being the targets of police harassment and brutality.
The Canadian-based drama, which takes place in 1990s Scarborough, centers on Michael (Lamar Johnson) and Francis (Aaron Pierre). The Jamaican-Canadian brothers live in a small apartment with mother Ruth (Marsha Stephanie Blake). Ruth, as a single mother raising two sons on her own, does the best that she can by enforcing rules in her household such as staying indoors, keeping the TV off, and speaking the Queen’s English as opposed to using slang in her presence. However, teenage boys will do what teenage boys inevitably will do and both Michael and Francis get involved with some unsavory characters throughout their youth.
The story of Brother is a bit non-linear, as there are several time jumps within the story and each of the respective fragments of these plot lines tell a smaller story that later lead to a climatic inciting incident. This incident exposes every character’s story arc along the way.
The story starts with the two brothers as young boys and transitions to them as adult men. Starting with Francis, one of the most wounded characters of this film, he has something to prove as he decides that school is unfulfilling and quits in the middle of his term. His dream is to become a music producer like Dr. Dre, as his brother Michael mentions in the story.
Michael, on the other hand, is the glue that holds the family together. Although physically he is weaker than Francis and even has to be defended from bullies because of his slim exterior, he has a much thicker skin than his older athletic brother Francis.
As the nightly news reports show how dangerous the neighborhood has become, this doesn’t keep the two brothers from their own personal interests and pursuits. Michael meets a young girl named Aisha (Kiana Madeira), who becomes a romantic partner for him throughout the lifespan of Michael’s story. As the jarring time jumps in the film progresses, the character development slowly builds to unravel the layers of these two brothers and their relationship with their mother. It is complicated to say the least, and it’s understandable, as Francis is burying a lot of emotions and Michael is in denial of his own mother’s debilitating condition.
The haunting score by Todor Kobakov lends ambiance to a movie that gives it a melancholic vibe. It’s beautiful and heartfelt through various scenes. The song selection is quite impressive as well, including a montage of scenes cut together with Nina Simone’s “Ne Me Quitte Pas.”
As beautiful as the story, direction, and performances of Brother were, the distracting time jumps took me out of the film more times than I care to admit. Michael and Francis’ mother Ruth, becomes mentally ill and the explanation for that illness comes far later in the story than the viewer would care to know. While the non-linear format of storytelling certainly is a creative artistic device, if not used properly or, as in this case, excessively, it can lose the viewer, which was the case for me in watching Brother.
The film does shed light on police brutality and the ugliness of it from racism, harassment, to state sanctioned violence perpetrated on Black men and women. For Americans, some of us assume this is mostly an American problem, but to see a Canadian film tackle such an atrocity was quite interesting to see. Sadly, it felt all too familiar, and the plot of police brutality didn’t add anything new or refreshing to this particular story. However, I will add that the story arc of the police traumatizing the two brothers plays a significant role in the film’s story and inciting incident later in the movie.
What doesn’t make this film more of the same is seeing the relationship these brothers have with each other and their mother. There is a reality in how boys brought up by single mothers are impacted in ways that are unique compared to being raised in a two-parent family household with a father. There is a moment in Brother when Michael and Francis make an attempt to visit their father, who has been absent their entire lives. Having an absentee father plays on the psyche of both of these boys, and you see in the film how it later impacts them as grown adults.
Brother is an incredible story with provocative performances by both Lamar Johnson and Aaron Pierre. The musical score is incredible and if you can look past the jarring time jumps, overall, I think you’ll enjoy the movie as a character piece on relationships and growing up Black in 90s Scarborough.
Brother made its World Premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival Sept 9th and will play throughout the rest of the festival for the public.
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Jamie Broadnax is the creator of the online publication and multimedia space for Black women called Black Girl Nerds. Jamie has appeared on MSNBC's The Melissa Harris-Perry Show and The Grio's Top 100. Her Twitter personality has been recognized by Shonda Rhimes as one of her favorites to follow. She is a member of the Critics Choice Association and executive producer of the Black Girl Nerds Podcast.