Clement Virgo's 'Brother' Brings Scarborough's Universal Beauty to the World

"You grew up thinking that where you're from is not beautiful — it's not worthy of a story"

Photo courtesy of Elevation Pictures

BY Rachel HoPublished Mar 15, 2023

It's not to say that Clement Virgo didn't embrace the gritty beauty of Regent Park in his 1995 film Rude, but there is a marked difference in how Toronto, specifically Scarborough, is portrayed in his latest film, Brother

"It took me a long time to really appreciate and love where I came from and see the beauty in it," the acclaimed Canadian director tells me during the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival. "Because you grew up thinking that where you're from is not beautiful — it's not worthy of a story."

Based on David Chariandy's award-winning novel of the same name, Brother is set in 1990s Scarborough and follows Francis (an extraordinary Aaron Pierre) and Michael (Scarborough's own Lamar Johnson), two brothers being raised by their single mother, Ruth (a deeply affecting Marsha Stephanie Blake). Told across two timelines, before and after an unfolding tragedy, we see the growth of Francis and Michael's kinship, as well as the highs and lows of their individual relationships with their mother. 

Brother is a coming-of-age, slice-of-life story that digs into the fragility of life and the power of our relations that puts Scarborough front and centre. While not shying away from its sometimes-gritty reality, Virgo shows the strength and warmth that Scarborough's communities bring to a part of Toronto often dismissed by the media and susceptible to unfair judgment and biases from those not from there.

In Chariandy's book, the family is from Trinidad, where the author's family hails, but in the film (and with Chariandy's blessing), Virgo relocated them to Jamaica, where the director was born. The result is a film that tells a poignant and personal story that is very distinct in its circumstances. 

"The more I made movies, the more I wanted them to be specific," Virgo explains. "The best movies are specific and bring you into a world that you don't know about and communicate this kind of humanity."

Although technically in a supporting role, the character of Francis is truly the main focus of Brother, and is where many will find the humanity Virgo seeks. The older brother of the two, Francis is the typical big man on campus, whom all the ladies want to date and the men revere. But, as is typically the case, Francis is far more complex than his charm, good looks and muscular build exhibit. "There's this storm in him that needs to be expressed," Virgo notes.

Through Francis, Virgo explores masculinity and the burden that the presumed "alpha male" carries. "I wanted to deconstruct the image of what we think we know about someone like Francis," says Virgo. "Because moving through the world, I had an armour on. … I think we all have a sense of having this armour and not being open. I wanted to give an insight into that." 

The character of Francis is beautifully written by both Chariandy and Virgo. His inner turmoil is rendered as opposite sides of the same coin: a man burdened by his innate desire to look after his little brother and mother while also harbouring an eagerness to carve a life out for himself. In order for Francis to land with audiences, Virgo had to find an actor who not only looked the part, but could elicit the unrest and gentleness required. Enter Aaron Pierre.

Born and raised in London, UK, Pierre is an up-and-coming actor whose star is fiercely on the rise. Having worked with Barry Jenkins in The Underground Railroad and M. Night Shyamalan in Old, Pierre is quickly developing a reputation for delivering compelling performances that are sensitive yet hardened, including a turn as Cassio in Othello that earned him an Ian Charleson Award commendation in 2018. 

"When I met [Aaron], I was like, 'Oh man, he has that classic '50s duality: feminine and masculine all in one person.' He's a beautiful specimen to look at, and he's, in some ways, what you think of as classic masculinity," Virgo tells me. "He has the same kind of qualities [as] Steve McQueen, James Dean or Montgomery Clift. Aaron has that thing."

When discussing Pierre's ability to show the softness that gives Francis such a well-rounded character, I mention to Virgo that Francis, although not to such extremes, reminds me of my own brother who never failed to be my protector while never showing any fractures in his resolve. It's a testament to the universality of Brother.

"Similar to you, I've had people in my life that were my protectors, [who] had this kind of performance of masculinity [and] this armour that you'd see and observe," Virgo shares. "But we knew that there was a kind of tenderness in them, there was a kind of vulnerability in them. There was a need to feel seen."

And that's where Brother finds its success. While the main story line sees the family grieving and finding their feet after tragedy, the soul of the film lies in the exploration of what masculinity means to a young man, son and brother, as well as what it means in a city like Scarborough. 

There was always the risk that Brother was maybe too specific for audiences outside of Toronto to appreciate. While it's true that those from Scarborough, or similar communities, may find a deeper attachment to the material, the magic of film is its ability to connect with audiences from completely different backgrounds than its characters. And for Virgo, this is effectively what he hopes to capture in all of his films.

"The best movies for me are when I'm watching a film and I'm reflecting on my own identity, my own feelings, my own kind of discourse and conversation with the film and the images," says Virgo. "That's what art is. We're trying to communicate, and to say, 'I felt this way. Have you also felt this way at some point?'"

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