At a time when Canadian film is under fire for its lack of diversity, Clement Virgo has always been a step ahead.
Having arrived in Canada from his native Jamaica at age 11, Virgo in 1995 screened his feature directorial debut, Rude, about three characters struggling for inner city redemption in 1990s Toronto, at Cannes and the Toronto Film Festival.
Now, 27 years later, Virgo is back at TIFF with Brother, a mystery drama with three intertwining timelines about Francis and Michael, sons of Caribbean immigrants who grow up on an embattled Toronto housing complex during a summer of police violence and dashed dreams in 1991. .
Based on David Chariandy’s novel Brother, Virgo explores themes of Black masculinity, family, loyalty and love through the eyes of two brothers: Michael, played by Lamar Johnson, and UK actor Aaron Pierre in the role of older brother and protector Francis.
As Toronto’s Jamaican diaspora and the suburb of Scarborough, where Brother is set, gets a rare cinematic spotlight, Virgo’s film plays on how young black men move through inner city Canada and how they are judged by others, and how they judge themselves. Looking back Virgo sees Rude as coming from the hand of a young, ambitious director.
“There’s so much energy and compulsion in that movie. There’s a kind of recklessness. I’m not sure I could make that movie now,” he tells THR. He hasn’t. Instead, with unfolding events of escalating tension and violence and profound grief and healing, everything moves in Brother, except the camera for greater emotional impact.
“The camera is very formal, it’s very locked down. There’s considered, slow moves to the camera. There’s a tension with the movement. It’s not hand-held, cinema verite, trying to capture what you may capture. Every frame is considered,” the director, whose TV credits include Greenleaf, The Wire, Billions, Empire and The Book of Negroesexplains.
An example of Virgo injecting uncomfortable tension in Brother is the opening scene where a fearless Francis dares Michael to climb up an electrified hydro tower. As the brothers rise through a gauntlet of live currents, and a scene meant to ratchet up mystery and suspense plays out elsewhere in the movie as Francis and Michael are seen to climb still higher, the audience gets peekaboo looks at an inevitable death and human loss. and grief to come in Bro.
“I created emphasis and anticipation through pure cinema, through sound and image, through what the camera is seeing and leaving a frame for the audience to interpret that image and to lean forward and try to untangle what that image means,” Virgo explains. But what promises to ultimately shock his audience is a cinematic sleight of hand Virgo borrowed from Hitchcock.
“I had to figure out how to make you think one thing is coming, but, of course, I had to create a twist within that,” he adds. That ultimately leaves Brother less a story of an eventual police killing than Michael and his mother Ruth, played by Orange Is the New Black actress Marsha Stephanie Blake, left frozen in time and grief as they can’t bring themselves to acknowledge their loss to themselves or others.
“The actual cops, I wasn’t really interested in seeing them,” Virgo argues, as the police as enemy in Brother are kept at a distance or in soft focus. Of course, the director’s cinematic intentions would have come to little were it not for his impressive cast, led by Johnson and Pierre.
For Virgo, directing his actors was less about getting them to channel their own dark emotions as their upbringings. Johnson, a former dancer turned actor, grew up in Scarborough in an immigrant family.
“So he has that same experience of the sacrifice and the ambition and hopes that his mother would have for him and he got that intuitively,” Virgo insists. And Pierre, while British, also lived in Scarborough for two years along with his family during his teenage years, before moving back to London to attend drama school.
“He (Pierre) had that sensitivity I wanted in Francis, that old-fashioned movie star quality: someone that’s very masculine, but also has feminine, soft, vulnerable sides, so he’s very tender inside,” Virgo said of casting Pierre.
So in Johnson and Pierre, the director found complementary actors who could exude the physical strength required of brothers coming of age in a society hostile to Black masculinity, and yet who could emotionally support each other and their heartbroken and exhausted single mother.
And Blake, like the Brother director, was born in Jamaica and left when she was 10 years old, this time to go to New York City with her family, where she eventually took up acting.
“Marsha Stapleton Blake is someone I didn’t need to translate for,” he adds as Blake playing Ruth innately understood the hopes and expectations and subtleties of the Black immigrant experience, where a young immigrant mother leaves the security of one place to come to another place for her children.
“I said to her, ‘look, you got to play both our mothers. You’re honoring our parents and once I said that, she got it,” Virgo recalled. And Kiana Madeira, an actress of Portuguese and Black descent who grew up in Scarborough, has the role of Aisha, who revives Michael and Ruth by raising them out of a world that went dark for ten years.
“She is the light that comes into this world that needed the light after the tragedy, of what happened to Francis… and to bring Michael and his Mom back into this world and to finally heal and to finally accept the past,” Virgo adds.
By the end of Brotheras Aisha helps Michael reconnect with his mother and be healed, Virgo delivers a happy ending to a film that journeys into a Black Canadian community founded on strength and resiliency and constant renewal.
“Ultimately, I’m an optimist. Joy and specifically Black joy on screen is important and hopefully that sense of joy comes across and ultimately the optimism comes across. So I wanted a bittersweet happy ending,” he insists.
Brother will play at TIFF in the Princess of Wales Theatre, where Virgo recalls a memorable evening seated into the audience for the world premiere of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave in 2014. The Canadian director also hasn’t been in a full movie theater for two years amid the pandemic.
‘Being at home for the last two years, watching various streamers, there was some good stuff and in some ways it saved my life in just being able to watch things. But I’m excited about going back and sitting in the theater again and watching the films with an audience. And I’m hoping that over the next little while audiences will come back to the theaters and see a film like Brother,” he adds.
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