A Black Brother Is Left Behind in Familiar, Inevitable Coming-of-Age Tale

Movies Reviews Clement Virgo
A Black Brother Is Left Behind in Familiar, Inevitable Coming-of-Age Tale

When part of a narrative’s point is the universality of its arc and the familiarity of its tragedy, it boasts a buffer against complaints of cliché. Oh, you’ve seen this before? We know. Isn’t it awful? But the balance of the broad and the specific—of the larger social landscape and the individual relationships at hand, or of the script outline and the auteur’s personal touch—is how you transcend the problems of convention. Brother, the nonlinear coming-of-age of two Black brothers in the immigrant hub of Scarborough, Toronto, finds inspiration where it can as it works through its inevitable beats.

Canadian filmmaker Clement Virgo adapts David Chariandy’s novel, in which Francis (Aaron Pierre) and Michael (Lamar Johnson) are raised by their single mother, Jamaican immigrant Ruth (Marsha Stephanie Blake). We two-step through time, lilting back and forth on the lengths of sideburns and dreadlocks—and on the cognitive decline of the boys’ mother. We glimpse Francis and Michael’s boyhood, frightened and hardening, but focus on their high school experience, when, on the cusp of manhood, the racism they face is at its most dangerous. 

Francis loves music (a soundtrack boasting Eric B. & Rakim and Nina Simone back this up) while Michael loves local girl Aisha (Kiana Madeira). All of it is threatened by the realities of their environment. When it’s time to cool back down, we rock forward to the present, a decade later, where Francis is gone and Michael has completed the journey from “cared-for” to “caretaker.”

The frayed ends of the timeline tweak our emotions. Two young Black boys scared of “Black murderers” on TV accidentally lock their mother out of their apartment; an emotionally scabbed-over young man finds himself grown up yet still scared, overprotective of his self-sacrificing mother. These moments invest their home with a soul, the bedroom and always-set dining table becoming familiar in a way that Scarborough never does. But these vignettes are overshadowed by the loaded gun that is Brother’s recent past.

We know terrible things are coming. We know it because of how Brother, viewed through Michael’s perspective, constantly elegizes its surroundings. We know it because that’s how these stories go. We know it because of Francis’ bubbling anger, his self-destructive streak that has him on the verge of running off or running headlong towards violence. He grabs the bowie knife’s blade brandished by a street bully, and leads Michael on a half-heartedly metaphorical climb up an electrical transmission tower. One false move is all it will take, and Black men often have the false moves of others thrust upon them. Take, then, the predictable scenes of police, when a shooting escalates the pressure on their community. Quiet cooperation assuages the tension built by Virgo’s faceless white cops, until one shoves someone Francis cares about. Then he yells, usually “don’t touch him,” and things take the turn we were all waiting for.

Virgo’s most arresting artistic choice, more striking than his confident navigation of Brother’s novelistic timestream and more elegant than his clunky interpretation of its dialogue, is his cold and realistic treatment of violence. Best known in the U.S. for his work on TV shows like The Wire, Greenleaf and Empire, Virgo’s beatings and shootings are visceral, matter-of-fact and horrifying—the threat to life is made real by his direction of the action and the aftermath, with the powerful make-up work only enhancing the performances and framing. Brother includes no action movie fistfights, no gangland movie shootings. Each bullet and kick comes with a price, and Virgo makes sure we pay it.

Outside of this, though, are dramatic routines which cost us nothing. The action and aftermath of problems too large to be contained in a simple sequence of violence. Ruth, though a long-suffering figure, has little to do beyond weeping and wandering once her role as the hard-ass, multi-shift nurse has faded. If Aisha wasn’t the mouthpiece for Brother’s themes, she’d have even less. A few poetic sentences regarding worthy subject matter (displaced parents supporting and then supported by the children that inherit their displacement; the forced invisibility of queerness; the hostility of poverty’s routines) attempt to paper over holes in the narrative drywall—or, in the vernacular of Brother, to put aluminum foil over its curtainless windows. These moments ask little of us, and we gain just as little from them.

Other issues that can nag at the truth Brother tells include the casting: Both Pierre and Johnson play high schoolers while nearly 30, and their age is carried in their grown faces, deep voices and bodies that they have far too much familiarity with. Pierre’s pained, imposing physique—captured in a slow tilt up his grieving arms, lingering on their pumped vasculature—is offset by his easy line delivery and expression-softening eyelashes. His performance is engrossing, despite the limitations of the role and how he fits into it. Johnson, with the much trickier job of the perspective character, is lost in the stifled silence left when a novel’s narration is removed. They build their characters’ relationship through body language and an assumed, naïve admiration, though what Brother does with it never appreciates the nuance its stars (especially Pierre) sometimes discover.

Attempting the lyricism of Barry Jenkins and the immersive community-building of Steve McQueen (a combination admired by another coming-of-age movie this year, A.V. Rockwell’s A Thousand and One), Brother’s tragic drama has difficulty writing lines that feel like its own. There is power in the inescapable, in the dreaded endpoint of becoming news after a lifetime spent fearing it—mourning it. But despite its length and artistic competence, Brother’s lack of affecting specificity displays rather than embodies grief.

Director: Clement Virgo
Writer: Clement Virgo
Starring: Aaron Pierre, Alsseny Camara, Delia Lisette Chambers, Evan Buliung, Inderjeet Bajwa, Kiana Madeira, Lamar Johnson, Lovell Adams-Gray, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Michael Antwi
Release Date: August 4, 2023

Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.

For all the latest movie news, reviews, lists and features, follow @PasteMovies.

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