Clement Virgo’s remarkable, beautiful new drama, Brother, perhaps the most anticipated Canadian film of the year, is a story about sacrifice.
Weaving together three timelines like the hazy remembrances of a late-summer dream, the film follows the lives of the charismatic but angry Francis and the hopelessly sensitive Michael, two siblings who could not be more different from one another yet are inseparable all the same. The boys are the loving sons of a single Jamaican immigrant mother who works double shifts as a nurse in the hopes that all her hard work – all the time that she spends away from her children – will result in a better life for her family in the unfairly blighted Toronto suburb of Scarborough.
Adapted from the award-winning 2017 novel by David Chariandy, Virgo’s Brother stares the notion of sacrifice straight in the face – and by the time it’s ready to blink, audiences are likely to be left in tears.
“I wanted to honour all our immigrant mothers with this story that David gifted us,” Virgo said in an interview a week ahead of the film’s world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. “David is an immigrant, I’m an immigrant, my producers [Damon D’Oliveira, Sonya Di Rienzo, Aeschylus Poulos] are immigrants. Most of our actors are the children of immigrants. When I made The Book of Negroes and showed it to my mom, she said, ‘That’s the reason why I brought you to Canada.’ I’m hoping that when she sees this, too, she’ll be proud of the sacrifice that she made for the next generation.”
But Virgo had to make sacrifices of his own to get here.
Brother’s main timeline follows the teenage Francis (rising British star Aaron Pierre, who will be next co-starring in Marvel’s Blade reboot) and Michael (Scarborough native Lamar Johnson), who are both wrestling with the lives that their mother, Ruth (Marsha Stephanie Blake), has built for them. Francis desperately yearns for something outside the confines of his family’s housing-complex apartment, its walls practically crushing his hulking form and stifling his musical talents. Michael doesn’t seem to know what he wants, other than the respect of Francis and maybe the attention of neighbour Aisha (Kiana Madeira).
Matters come to a head one late, sweltering night in the summer of 1991 – the same summer that Virgo spent enrolled in the Canadian Film Centre’s residency program for filmmakers of colour.
“I was in my early twenties, and that summer changed my life,” Virgo recalls. He not only met his producing partner D’Oliveira and future Canadian film colleagues Mina Shum (Double Happiness) and Stephen Williams (who is also at TIFF this year with the historical drama Chevalier), but gained a crucial sense of confidence and legitimacy, including the attention and mentorship of CFC founder Norman Jewison.
“When I started, there weren’t many BIPOC filmmakers, we were one of the few. Of course there’s been progress since,” says Virgo, an early advocate for the creation of the Black Screen Office and a current member of the CFC board. “But I don’t think that progress is a steady, straight line up. There is progress, and there are setbacks.”
Virgo’s career has largely been that straight line up, though there have been detours, swerves, sacrifices. The filmmaker came out of the CFC with what would be the screenplay for Rude, a beguiling, landmark look at Black-Canadian lives that tells three interconnected stories in Regent Park, where Virgo grew up. Bold, fresh and infused with a live-wire energy, the film made its world premiere in the prestigious Un Certain Regard section at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival before enjoying its hometown debut at TIFF, where it opened the festival’s Canadian cinema program.
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From there, Virgo made a quick succession of acclaimed films: 1997′s tender character study The Planet of Junior Brown (co-written by future TIFF CEO Cameron Bailey), 1999′s made-for-TV coming-of-age romance One Heart Broken Into Song, 2000′s drama Love Come Down (which also focuses on two brothers at odds with one another). But as Canadian filmmakers eventually discover, devoting your time to solely making passion projects is not entirely sustainable.
“We all have to support ourselves and our families, and filmmaking, you can’t really make a living, not any more,” Virgo says. “Once upon a time you could, but I’m not sure it’s possible strictly as a filmmaker. You have to do television.”
Which is why, since 2000, Virgo has developed a wildly prolific TV career, on both sides of the border. There was the Toronto-shot The L Word, but also the HBO all-timer The Wire. He helmed episodes of CTV’s The Listener, but also Fox’s Empire. There was CBC’s The Book of Negroes, but also Oprah Winfrey’s Greenleaf.
“I’ve made a solid living as a hard-hat television director, someone who comes in for an episode or two, but on some shows I’ve been a director-producer, too,” Virgo says.
“Sometimes as an artist, you forget what that original ambition was. You get sidetracked. What COVID made me ask myself was, ‘What do I want?’ I wanted to be a writer-director again. And I wanted to take the risk of maybe not getting hired to do episodic TV, to take two years to make this film for my own artistic soul, to make that sacrifice. Sometimes you can feed your pocket, but not feed your soul.”
As almost everyone associated with Brother is quick to point out in interviews, the project – Virgo’s first film since the 2007 boxing drama Poor Boy’s Game – marks something of a full-circle moment for the filmmaker, a spiritual loop back to the days of Rude.
“It turned out that Rude was one of the first things that inspired David to write Brother,” D’Oliveira recalls. “And then Clement had such a visceral response to David’s novel, it felt like his screenplay almost wrote itself.”
That blend of the personal and fictional – the driving force of telling a story about a specific time and place and community – it all fuelled Virgo’s creative process, both then and now. Even if there are crucial differences.
“I was the star of Rude, and what I mean by that is that I poured every cinematic trick I knew at the time into it,” Virgo says. “Here, I wanted the film to be the star – the great story that David gifted us.”
It is a story that required a significant adjustment, though. In Chariandy’s novel, Michael and Francis are Trinidadian immigrants, like the author himself. With Chariandy’s blessing, Virgo changed the characters’ background to Jamaican immigrants, like himself.
“Clement was the perfect combination of understanding what it feels like to grow up in a particular time and place and body, and yet he needed to bring his own signature to it,” Chariandy says. “That was essential.”
“We had a lot of conversation about what the family would look like, would their lives would feel like – the culture, the food, the speech – being Jamaican and not Trinidadian,” recalls Johnson, who plays Michael. “Clement understood all the nuances in order to tell the story authentically.”
Another tweak: While the film takes place in Scarborough, due to various unavoidable circumstances – money, scheduling, achieving the visual language of a time period that had to be recreated from scratch – Brother was only partially shot there. There are scenes filmed in the area’s Rouge Valley – a sun-dappled picnic that represents something like a fantasy for Michael and Francis – but the boys’ housing complex was shot around the Bathurst and Lawrence area uptown. Meanwhile, the family’s apartment was built from the ground up on a soundstage near the airport, a result of the city’s coveted downtown studio spaces taken up by U.S. productions that seek to dress up Toronto as anywhere else.
“I wanted to control the environment as much as I could, to make it as personal as I could,” Virgo says of the apartment’s intricate set-design. “I went back to my memory. The apartment needs these kinds of plates, this colour on the walls. It brought me back to a place of my childhood.”
Still, Brother is unmistakably a Scarborough film – perhaps not so much a gritty love letter as Shasha Nakhai and Rich Williams’s Canadian Screen Award-winning 2021 film Scarborough, as it is a pained, layered, aesthetically heightened remembrance. The film also offers mounting evidence – alongside the 2016 Canadian dramedy Wexford Plaza – that the Canadian film industry is waking up to stories told outside the more familiar downtown environs of Toronto.
“Once upon a time it was frowned upon to look at your own backyard and say it’s just as valid as Paris or New York or L.A. – there is power in specificity of place,” Virgo says. “Why not set it in Scarborough? That’s where David set his story.”
Throughout Brother, Virgo returns to a scene in which the teenage Francis and Michael are climbing a hydro tower – a nerve-wracking sequence that acts as a symbolic dare for the boys, the safe roots of Scarborough at their feet and the riskier possibilities of the wider world awaiting at the top. Today, Virgo is attempting a similar balancing act.
This past summer, he was in New York directing episodes of the forthcoming Apple TV+ series Dear Edward, based on the bestselling novel by Ann Napolitano and developed for television by mega-producer Jason Katims (Friday Night Lights, Parenthood). But Virgo is also preparing his next film, Black Cyclone, a biopic of cyclist Marshall Walter (Major) Taylor, who became the world’s fastest man at the height of the Jim Crow era – all the while trying to both provide and be present for his family.
“Once you get into the television ecosystem, the next thing you know is that you’re spending a lot of time not writing that script, and if you have a family, you then have the challenge of making sure that you’re spending your time off with them, and not off in that room, working on that screenplay,” Virgo says. “I want to find that balance of collaborating with fellow artists who are doing things that I might not have originated, but at the same time being a creator myself.”
And even in the relatively stable world of television, nothing is guaranteed. In 2019, Virgo was attached to the series Bloom, a Second World War-era drama that was being developed for Netflix with Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground production company. A regime change at the streamer has since scuttled the project, though Virgo is hopeful that it still might find a home.
“As an artist, the only thing guaranteed is that you’ll get punched in the face from time to time. But you have to be able to survive and maintain your optimism and carry that confidence to try again,” Virgo says. “That’s the nature of the game.”
Brother screens Sept. 9 and Sept. 16 at the TIFF (tiff.net); it will be released theatrically in Canada by Elevation Pictures at a future date.
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