'Brother' Is a Powerful Slice of Scarborough Life

Directed by Clement Virgo

Starring: Lamar Johnson, Aaron Pierre, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Kiana Madeira, Lovell Adams-Gray

Photo courtesy of TIFF

BY Rachel HoPublished Mar 13, 2023

"Follow my every step," Francis (Aaron Pierre) instructs his younger brother Michael (Lamar Johnson), confidence reverberating through his voice. The two are negotiating a dangerous climb up a hydro tower to gain an impeccable view of Toronto in the opening scene of Clement Virgo's latest film, Brother. It's an apt introduction to a film that goes deep into the thick of the desire to do more with life than society permits.

Based on the award-winning novel by David Chariandy of the same name, the story of Francis and Michael growing up in Scarborough in the 1990s is a moving film that explores the humanity behind grief, fear and ambition. Told in a non-linear format, Virgo weaves together the boys' childhood, high school years, and the aftermath of an unfolding tragedy. 

What Chariandy and Virgo do so brilliantly with Brother is cast a nuanced eye towards life in a part of Toronto often villainized by the rest of the city. Without sanitizing and negating the reality of crime and gang culture, the film considers the plight of a family simply trying to strengthen and grow. Francis in particular is an interesting character study, thanks in large part to Pierre's stunning performance.

The up-and-coming British actor provides the precarious balance between imposing physicality and subtle sensitive vulnerabilities. Francis's desire to do more in his life isn't necessarily about doing something better or beyond what Scarborough "allows" him; rather, it's a desire to feel like he's contributing something to the world and doing more in life than just going through the motions. Pierre brings every shade of Francis to life in a truly breathtaking turn.

Marsha Stephanie Blake, as the boys' single mother, Ruth, is another standout. As the heart and soul of the film, Blake is achingly graceful. She lends a devastating yet beautiful degree of grief that can only come from a mother's love. 

This is Virgo's return to the silver screen after working primarily in television for the last 15 years and may serve as an introduction to the Canadian director for a younger generation who will undoubtedly go searching for his earlier films. His deft work behind the camera lends an authentic and lived-in texture to Brother, while the various needle drops throughout the film introduce a visceral essence to the story. (Nina Simone's "Ne Me Quitte Pas" has been used many times over in film and television, but few have made the song hit the way it does in this movie.)

Brother is the perfect bookend to Virgo's first film, Rude. Both highlight the stories and challenges of Black Canadians growing up in Toronto, and, most importantly, show the beauty of the individuals who make up these rich communities. Brother overwhelms with power and emotion, creating one of the most deeply felt films of the year.
(Elevation Pictures)

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