TORONTO — In the opening scene of “Brother,” two Black teens prepare for a climb, the elder instructing his younger sibling: "follow my every step.”
As they trek up a hazardous hydro tower, an impeccable sight of Toronto comes into view. It's treacherous but rewarding, an allegory for the Black experience.
At an early point in his life, Lamar Johnson — who stars in the Clement Virgo-directed coming-of-age chronicle — said he couldn’t imagine himself starring in this scene.
“I didn't even know that being able to act, much less in a film like 'Brother,' was possible until I sat down and saw a commercial with a little Black kid, and I was like, 'whoa, hold on, I could do that too,'” said Johnson, 28, who spent most of his growing years as a self-taught dancer.
“In a way, it was quite beautiful to be able to sit down and read the script and feel seen."
“Brother,” adapted from Vancouver-based author David Chariandy’s novel of the same name, is a coming-of-age story centred on two young Jamaican-Canadian men who experience struggles and joys in a 1991 version of the east-Toronto suburb of Scarborough.
The film is at the forefront of this year's Canadian Screen Awards with 14 film nominations, including best picture and achievement in direction.
For his part, Johnson is up for performance in a leading role, while his co-star Aaron Pierre is up for performance in a supporting role in the film set for its theatrical debut Friday.
Johnson said he saw immediate parallels with his character, Michael, the timid younger brother to the more confident Francis, portrayed by Pierre.
Like Michael, Johnson grew up in Scarborough, raised by a single mom who immigrated from Jamaica.
"I remember reading the scripts and when I discovered that it was also based in Scarborough, that for me was sort of the moment," said Johnson, who has since been recognized internationally for his part in HBO's hit video game-adapted television series “The Last of Us."
"Here's this little Black boy from ... immigrant parents, which is literally, the full representation of my experience and my existence.”
Embodying Michael was emotionally demanding, Johnson said.
“No one really taught some of us Black men how to deal with trauma, and no one is teaching (Michael) how to navigate and he doesn’t have a therapist he can talk to. And that was my approach, to be present and put myself in these circumstances and ask myself how it’s affecting me.”
Johnson said he felt Michael was different from some other Black boys in volatile settings portrayed in films. The character was nuanced, he said, with scenes that hinged on a gaze or quiet expression; absent words.
“There’s a power in silence, a power in simplicity,” he said. “There’s something about someone not having to actually physically say something for them to say something, whether through their eyes or body language.”
But beyond the character, Johnson said the whole movie was relatable.
The coming-of-age drama is specific to the kind of immigrant hub he’s experienced firsthand — from the barbershops and apartments with untouched china to the looming threat of police brutality.
“It’s all there in the dialect and the patois, which all feel authentic to the experience of this movie and the experience of a lot of Black boys and men from Toronto,” Johnson added. “Scarborough is such a melting pot of so many different cultures and experiences so that even when you’re not Caribbean, you can connect to the experience”
Mississauga-raised Kiana Madeira co-stars as Aisha, an old friend from the neighbourhood who returns after an absence and finds Michael more mature.
“It’s interesting, the concept of connecting and being seen. You can be seen as an audience member but also as an artist when you’re making a film,” said Madeira, who was born in Parkdale, another immigrant-rich Toronto neighbourhood.
Madeira, who previously starred in Netflix’s "Fear Street" trilogy, said that like her character, she learned early how to support her loved ones in the same fashion that immigrant parents often do — through a sense of survival.
“There are a lot of moments when Aisha felt eager to fix Michael’s problems," Madeira said. "It was very similar to my own experience where this profession can take you to a lot of places and bring you back to a community with an outside perspective.”
For Madeira, much like Johnson, this was more than a role, but an opportunity to be a part of a vision of Blackness in Toronto as it exists.
“Everything about this project coming together felt very divine,” said Madeira. “To be a part of this movie with all its nuance, I feel very honoured and grateful because that’s all we want to do as actors, invoke authentic emotions and audience members."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 17, 2023.
Noel Ransome, The Canadian Press