Brother is an intimately woven story of grief

The novel-turned-film infuses vivid character into people and place

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Two brothers, Black young men, sit on a bench outside in front of power lines. The sun is setting and the sky is tinted orange.
PHOTO: Courtesy of Elevation Pictures

By: Petra Chase, Arts & Culture Editor

Content warning: mentions of police brutality and racism.

I read Brother in my first year at SFU, after taking ENGL 112W instructed by the author, David Chariandy. As soon as I found out about the film adaptation directed by Clement Virgo, I was eager to see it play out on screen. Through new senses, I gained a renewed appreciation for this intimate portrait of Scarborough, Ontario — a place I’ve never been but have visited through Chariandy’s illusive storytelling and Virgo’s intentional cinematography.

Michael (Lamar Johnson) grows up under the guidance, and at times, shadow, of his confident older brother, Francis (Aaron Pierre). Their single mother, (Marsha Stephanie Blake), is a Trinidadian immigrant who works multiple jobs. Moving through different time periods in the ‘80s and ‘90s, the story explores how race, masculinity, and class compound how they fit into the world; Francis teaches Michael to have a tough exterior to survive under unfair conditions.

Intruding on their coming-of-age experiences is the persistent police presence in their neighbourhood. It’s a constant reminder that racialized communities, and especially Black men, are over-surveilled. In the novel, Michael describes how quickly his neighbourhood is transformed into a crime scene, and how even his own community members see young Black boys as “scoundrels.” Michael describes hypervisibility in that moment as “being studied unfavourably. When you’re being watched but also trying to see.”

Brother is Chariandy’s second book — both books are set in his hometown, Scarborough. Chariandy said he was “discomforted by the negative stories of Scarborough” from those who didn’t know the area very well. He also said the book helped him process the “vulnerability” he felt growing up about “the possibility that life would take an ugly turn.”

This spoke to Virgo on a “visceral level.” In what’s described as his most personal film yet, the brothers’ mother, Ruth, is from Jamaica rather than Trinidad like in the novel, as this is where Virgo’s mother was born. “Clement could infuse the home and other settings with sounds, images, and overall references that he himself could recall from childhood,” Chariandy told The Peak.

The phenomenal cast embodied Chariandy’s fleshed-out characters fully. The trust and love between mother and sons, and the weight each character carries, all felt extremely real.

Johnson, who plays Michael, told CBC News, “it was important for Black Canadian kids to see themselves  represented on screen.” As a “first-generation Canadian raised by a single mom from Jamaica,” Lamar said, it felt similar to his childhood. 

Visually, the film is a feast for the eyes, with moody shadowing and colour palettes, and nostalgic set and costume design. It premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2022 and won 14 awards, including Best Motion Picture at the Canadian Screen Awards. 

Whether you decide to read the book or watch the novel, you can expect a satisfying balance of dialogue and action, each detail moving you deeper into the characters and setting. The film inspired me to re-read the book, finding new slivers of meaning in every line, which is something I asked Chariandy about.

“In art, I think we feel that something is ‘real’ when we observe details — either details that appear directly relevant to the main actions of the scene or plot, or, paradoxically, details that are minor or even ‘irrelevant,’ and thereby signify the complex over-abundancy of life,” he said.

A pungent shattered pickle jar, onions hitting hot oil, and the distant dribble of a basketball on asphalt are some of the details Chariandy etched into my memory, and caught my attention throughout the film. Details breathe life into the memorable settings that make up Scarborough, like the library where Michael and his friend Aisha (Kiana Madeira) get close, or the Rouge Valley, a sliver of wilderness that offers sanctuary from the concrete jungle. 

And then there’s Desirea’s, a barbershop, and so much more. It’s there where Francis and his friends, and later Michael and Aisha, hang out and listen to music. An ode to Toronto hip-hop and its Black influences, Desirea’s demonstrates the importance of belonging, especially among children of immigrants, who come from different cultural backgrounds yet share the “second-generation experience of being racialized and Black in Canada.”

Above all, Brother is a story about complicated grief, and how the stuckness of it impacts a family and community; there’s the grief of childhood dreams being shattered by the cold realization that your identities limit your opportunities. There’s the grief of longing for a safe community that’s not overpoliced, and the grief of the loved ones lost due to police brutality. And there’s migratory grief, in which Michael and Francis are disconnected from the place and culture where they were born, and their mother is reluctant to talk about her hometown. 

That is until Aisha, who grows up alongside Michael, comes back to visit after travelling abroad and visiting her father’s hometown. Madeira brings gentleness and warmth to her on-screen character, including the poise to throw a rock at a police car. “In that moment, Aisha just feels that the world is against them, and that includes the systems that are in charge of their life,” the actor explained at a Q&A. It’s beautiful and cathartic to see how she brings healing to the heartbroken characters by encouraging conversation around grief. 

There’s something so special about a story that moves you the way Brother does, and it certainly has to do with the “respect and familiarity” that everyone brought to telling it, from the novelist to the screenwriter and director, as well as the actors. Brother will pull you into its world and stick with you. 

Rent Brother on YouTube, Crave, CBC, and other streaming platforms. Buy the novel online at Massy Books or any local independent bookstore.

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