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Brother

Many films that tackle Black stories prioritize plight, treating their characters as inconsequential stand-ins for a thesis on trauma and pain. More successful, powerful films devote their narrative effort to how characters move through their environments. They afford their subjects agency and identity, rendering them as individuals instead of thoughtless symbols of the Black experience. It’s a nuanced distinction, but prioritizing character relays a deeper level of understanding and empathy, which Clement Virgo’s “Brother” executes poignantly.

“Brother” opens with brothers Francis (Aaron Pierre) and Michael (Lamar Johnson) climbing up electrical towers. Francis leads, instructing younger brother Michael to follow his every move. He signals that the buzzing will get louder the higher they climb, but all Michael needs to do is follow his example, and they’ll make it to the top. This vignette becomes a metaphor for their lives as “Brother” threads together three timelines: their childhoods, adolescence in high school, and young adult years. 

The sons of a single mother, a Caribbean immigrant to Scarborough, Canada, Francis and Michael couldn’t be more different. Francis is confident, physically imposing in height and musculature, and a leader among his family and peers. Michael is meek and reserved, a small fish in the pond of an increasingly hostile environment. As Francis finds himself straddling a life of family and ambition while walking a tightrope with a gang-affiliated friend group, the brothers begin facing questions of masculinity and tenacity as they age, coming face to face with the consequences of an anti-Black world in all its forms. 

Pierre and Johnson's excellent chemistry is integral to the film’s success. They are believable as brothers not only through performance but also through the script’s ability to showcase the symbiotic relationship they have. One’s fear begets the vigilance of the other, just as one’s reservation influences the other’s proactivity. Pierre’s stoicism is a major marker of Francis’s strength against the odds, so when he breaks, showing tenderness and vulnerability, the moments hit with full impact. His indomitable facade doesn’t feel overly constructed or contrived, and Pierre performs each end of the spectrum with touching empathy in body and expression. 

Johnson, on the other hand, is always easy to read, constantly wearing his heart on his sleeve. Though Michael doesn’t intend to be seen, it can’t be helped, and this openness of character is precisely what incites so much love for him. He isn’t painted as a victim but as a dependent. And as we tour his life in Virgo’s three stages, it isn’t until we learn of Francis’ departure (the context of which isn’t explicitly revealed until the final act) that we see Michael come into his authority. He is the film’s emphatic core, driving the emotional weight and expressing it with sensitivity in its gravity, contrasting Francis’s stone-cold disposition.

As their neighborhood sees an uptick in gang violence, Francis withdraws. The brothers come of age during the 1990s hip-hop renaissance, as Michael’s dream is to be an emcee like Dr. Dre. Yet as he grows up, pulling further away from the family unit and into independence, the household is left rocked. Their mother, Ruth (Marsha Stephanie Blake), is a force of tough but tender love. Her ideas for the home are rigid, but her love for Michael and Francis butts against them in a typical head vs. heart dilemma. Blake gives a stunning performance as we view her development as much as Michael’s. From the boys’ childhood to Francis’ eventual departure, Ruth undergoes waves of change she can’t keep up with, and her relationship with Michael supplements the film’s heart after Francis leaves the picture.

Todor Kobakov’s spellbinding score glues the film’s emotional display to its stunning visuals. Played over meditative moments, the music brings “Brother” down to earth while warm versus cool color schemes paint the screen with damning dissonance. No feeling in “Brother” goes unfelt; every element of its filmmaking taps into the heart. As Michael navigates his memory, trying to reconcile ideas of masculinity against unforgiving circumstances, a study erupts: that of the spirit’s resolve and the immortality of familial love. "Brother" is a portrait of Black youth pitted against forces beyond their control. 

Now playing in theaters. 

Peyton Robinson

Peyton Robinson is a freelance film writer based in Chicago, IL. 

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Film Credits

Brother movie poster

Brother (2023)

Rated NR

119 minutes

Cast

Lamar Johnson as Michael

Aaron Pierre as Francis

Kiana Madeira as Aisha

Marsha Stephanie Blake as Ruth

Lovell Adams-Gray as Jelly

Maurice Dean Wint as Samuel

Taveeta Szymanowicz as Goose

Director

Writer (novel)

Writer

Cinematographer

Editor

Composer

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