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'Brother' director Clement Virgo on depicting Black male vulnerability on screen

TORONTO — Portraying Black male vulnerability on screen should not feel like a radical or difficult idea, but Canadian director Clement Virgo says that is how he felt when he embarked on his latest feature, "Brother," screening at the Toronto Interna
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Director Clement Virgo poses for a portrait in Toronto, Friday, Sept. 9, 2022, as he promotes the film "Brother" at the Toronto International Film Festival. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

TORONTO — Portraying Black male vulnerability on screen should not feel like a radical or difficult idea, but Canadian director Clement Virgo says that is how he felt when he embarked on his latest feature, "Brother," screening at the Toronto International Film Festival. 

Set in a 1991 version of Scarborough, an eastern part of Toronto, “Brother” is the story of two young Jamaican-Canadian men coming to terms with who they are and how to navigate the joys and dangers they face at every turn. 

Fundamentally, it’s a film about the anxieties two siblings face and how they choose to confront them differently. Michael, played by Scarborough's Lamar Johnson, is the younger, introverted brother, while Francis, played by London's Aaron Pierre, is outwardly strong, but buries his fears deep.

"It’s hard to make a film like this because we think that audiences want spectacle,” says Virgo. 

“I don't want viewers to just look at them with sympathy, but to empathize — not just by observing them, but feeling them.” 

For Virgo, the intent was to portray two Black men as three-dimensional. 

“Francis was an artist like me, and he was frustrated," Virgo says of the extroverted brother. 

“I get the frustration of that — of wanting to make a movie and to write, create, and not being able to.” 

On the other hand, Virgo also connects with the timid Michael.

"I'm always an introvert masquerading as an extrovert."

The brothers' emotional turmoil reflects Virgo's own experiences growing up, when he says he wore an emotional armour like everyone else he knew.

“You moved through the world even though you were scared, vulnerable, with a screw face that helped you navigate,” Virgo says of having to adopt a brave face.

“I wanted this film to have the audiences feel and see these characters."

“Brother” is based on the novel of the same name by accomplished Vancouver-based author, David Chariandy, who drew inspiration from his own life in Scarborough as the child of immigrant parents from Trinidad. 

Virgo was born in Jamaica but grew up in downtown Toronto's Regent Park neighbourhood. He grew up with a single mom who came to Canada with four children.

“I wanted to honour immigrant parents,” says Virgo, one of Canada's foremost Black film directors whose movies have been celebrated at Sundance and Cannes in addition to TIFF, which has screened every one of his films since 1992.

“When I read David’s novel, it felt different and familiar to me. His characters functioned optimally and it felt very personal.” 

This specificity of time and place was built into every frame of “Brother,” from the sounds of '90s hip-hop to the barbershop sights — Scarborough as an extended character is never forgotten. 

For Virgo, it was crucial to showcase the culturally diverse Scarborough, as a protagonist itself, whether through the West Indian patois heard among its residents. Or the dance hall energy of a late-night hangout.

“Scarborough represents the future when you have all these cultures around the world gathered in this place,” says Virgo. “People will experiment here and try each other’s food. It’s why everybody knows how to use a chopstick in Scarborough.” 

For Virgo, these visual cues are what allow a film like “Brother” to feel so necessary. 

Every instance of police brutality, Black joy and pain, is entwined with the heart of a place that was rarely given the opportunity to be multidimensional due to its negative stigmas — much like its Black residents.

"This is a chance to showcase something special,” says Virgo. “I’ve had time to reflect on how I want to spend my time during COVID and I’m just proud to see all these Black actors and talent be presented to the world.”

TIFF runs through Sept. 18.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 10, 2022.

Noel Ransome, The Canadian Press