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Lamar Johnson and Kiana Madeira take us back in time to experience Black struggle and joy
Brother stars Kiana Madeira and Lamar Johnson. Hair by Tremaine Thomas; makeup by Joan Chell; clothing design by Kyle Gervacy with shoes from Dr Marten and watch from Tissot.
Brother, Toronto’s answer to movies like Boyz N The Hood and Moonlight, opens with two siblings daring to climb a hydro tower. It’s a symbolic and emotionally loaded sequence that recurs throughout the movie, featuring two Black boys at a site of danger trying to rise above it all. And it hits especially hard for anyone from Scarborough, where David Chariandy’s novel and Clement Virgo’s movie adaptation is set.
The hydro corridor is the east end’s connective tissue, an intimate space cutting across the geographic range and class and ethnic diversity from the Rouge to Wexford Park. It’s about as elemental a representation of Scarborough as you can get.
And it wasn’t even shot in Scarborough.
The logistical challenges to film amidst electrical wires pushed producers to shoot this pivotal sequence at a decommissioned hydro field in Mississauga. Aside from sequences in the Rouge Valley, a lot of Brother – which premieres at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival – was shot elsewhere, with ’Sauga, Rexdale and East York subbing in for the east end.
“We’re trying to recreate Scarborough from 1991, so where do you find that?” asks producer Damon D’Oliveira, grappling with how time and development has changed the make-up of a community we latch on to so dearly.
It’s October 2021. I’m speaking to D’Oliveira, along with stars Lamar Johnson and Kiana Madeira and others involved with Brother, on set and in follow-up Zoom calls. We’re parsing the way we create and consume Scarborough narratives, and how we represent a community that doesn’t exist like it used to.
Most of the peeps I’m talking to are from the east-end community. Others simply know so much about it because of how loudly Scarberians flex. There’s an infectious sense of Scarborough pride shared by so many community ambassadors, including the Weeknd, the creators of the CBC Gem series Next Stop and Catherine Hernandez, whose own novel Scarborough was adapted into a film that premiered at TIFF (and was also on our cover last year).
The Brother set itself is at the Toronto Congress Centre near the airport. They’re using a convention hall as a sound stage as airplanes roar above every 10 or 15 minutes. That leaves director Clement Virgo and his crew timing their takes between takeoffs. All the streamers took over the local film studios so the Brother production found themselves gentrified out to the city’s margins – which is almost poetic, given the subject matter.
Brother is a coming-of-age story about Black boys finding joy and struggle in a hard-done-by community. The movie is set in both 1991 and 2001, jumping back and forth in time while reconstructing a Scarborough that’s long gone due to time and gentrification.
Johnson, a Scarborough native who broke out with movies like Kings and The Hate U Give, stars as Michael, a meek teenager looking up to his older brother Francis (The Underground Railroad’s Aaron Pierre). Madeira, the Mississauga-raised star of Netflix’s Fear Street trilogy, plays Aisha, a friend and romantic interest who leaves Scarborough following the events in 1991 and returns home in 2001 to find everyone stuck in the past.
“When my character comes back home, that’s when the collapsing of time happens,” says Madeira. She might as well be describing the experience of watching Brother, revisiting a time in Scarborough when British Knights and L.A. Raiders jackets were in and cell phones, social media and even the internet were incomprehensible. The movie conjures up vivid, almost tactile memories that those of us who have long moved on from Scarborough hold on to.
Before he moved to the city pursuing his career, Johnson was raised opposite the soon-to-be-demolished Malvern mall, which is making way for (what else?) a condo development. His family has also moved on, heading east like so many from the area who are finding new digs in Durham. Johnson points out that people aren’t necessarily thinking of a specific time or place in Scarborough when they represent the community from afar.
“I think [people are] just repping what Scarborough represents,” Johnson says. “There are so many things to be inspired by from Scarborough. There are so many great artists and people from Scarborough. It’s in the community, it’s in the music, it’s in the energy, it’s in the people, it’s in the vibe, it’s in the style. All of that encompasses what Scarborough actually represents.”
Inside the Toronto Congress Centre hall is the reconstructed interior of the Scarborough apartment belonging to single Jamaican immigrant mother Ruth (Orange Is The New Black’s Marsha Stephanie Blake) and her two sons Michael and Francis. The apartment is striking in its exacting details, with intimate touches specific to Jamaican households. There’s the dark brown parquet floors, popcorn ceiling, fake flowers, ceramic ornaments, a curio with untouched china and the turquoise-to-blood orange colour palette that seems to emulate the sun setting over the Caribbean Sea. The only thing missing is the plastic wrap on the couch. Otherwise, the time travel is on point.
In Chariandy’s book, the family is Trini. The movie adapts the ethnicity to cater to cast members Johnson and Blake, and perhaps also the film’s director, who was born in Montego Bay and raised in Regent Park.
For Virgo, Brother is a full-circle moment. He’s directing a scene in the summer of 91, revisiting the same year he entered the Canadian Film Centre’s Summer Lab. That’s where he met producer D’Oliveira and developed the script for his feature debut, Rude, which was also about Black boys perceived as societal threats.
There was promise on the back of Rude that Canadian film was making room for Black voices, nurturing their stories and culture alongside a local hip-hop scene led by Maestro Fresh Wes, Michee Mee and Dream Warriors. Instead, Canadian film mostly retreated to cottage country.
“I see this film almost as a bookend to Rude,” says D’Oliveira, who grew up at Warden and Sheppard.
In the scene Virgo is directing, Michael and Francis stumble into the apartment. Francis is bloodied, bruised and in distress. Michael is hoisting him up. Ruth desperately tries to comfort her son in this climactic moment to no avail.
A number of factors are coming to a head in this scene, most of them familiar to the boys who – as Chariandy puts it on a Zoom call – are facing anti-Black racism and all the knock-on pressures that come with it. Chariandy poses a hypothetical question as a way to get at what Brother is about: “What is it like to not have the type of economic security that others have in the city and have that complicated by a racist gaze upon you?”
Chariandy grew up near the Port Union and Lawrence area and went to school at Mowat. To get away from the “Mo-white gaze,” his older brother attended Cedarbrae at Markham and Lawrence. Brother is meant to take place near the Galloway area (which is midway between those two schools), where Hernandez’s novel is also set.
Is it a coincidence that two of the three Scarborough movies (Wexford Plaza being the first) that have come out in the last six years is set in that corner? Or is to be expected given the Galloway area’s notoriety after the Danzig shooting a decade ago?
Brother doesn’t shy away from the tragic violence that plagued such communities. The movie has scenes of retributive gang violence and brutal police interactions, with Michael and Francis often feeling caught in the crossfire. It also captures the way the media repeats and emphasizes that one note about Scarborough. I half-suspect there will be some harping over Scarborough narratives following the same trajectory by repeatedly returning to hood stories about poverty and violence.
“It’s important to actually show the real things that are happening,” says Madeira, “but then have kind of a redemption story or showing people a way that you can overcome those circumstances.”
“It’s just authenticity,” says Johnson. “The reason why I connected to this book so much is because it’s very honest that way.”
It’s Johnson’s character Michael whose perspective the movie adopts as he internalizes the events that happen in 91 and copes with their repercussions a decade later.
“What does that trauma do to them? How does that affect relationships they have around them? How does that affect their family?” says Johnson. These are questions the news media narratives about Scarborough rarely explore but Brother is about. It’s also – as everyone on set reminds me – about Black joy and community.
The narrative keeps returning to a barbershop called Desiree’s, where young men come in to get their line-ups while a DJ named Jelly (Lovell Adams-Gray) spins records and Francis MCs. It’s a safe space. One particular party scene at Desiree’s keeps coming up in my conversations with Madeira and Johnson, a constant reminder that Virgo and his cinematographer made a sweaty and sexy Scarborough movie. In it, Aisha is wining up on Michael. The moves are slow. The mood is sensual. Mad Cobra’s classic dancehall tune Flex was playing on a loop while Madeira and Johnson shot the scene.
“The lighting, the skin, the sweat, the music,” says Madeira, listing off all the elements that went into making that sequence pure vibes of a kind she never really experienced before. Flex came out the year she was born, after all. “Just going there and experiencing the connection, the music and just how much it meant to them, that doesn’t exist anymore; just that culture and that connection.”
Johnson talks about channelling his own experience navigating Malvern to play Michael, who moves with a certain comfort when his older brother Francis is around in 91, but keeps his head down when that protection is nowhere to be found in 01. Navigating these pockets in Scarborough when you feel like no one has your back can be a terrifying experience that we internalize.
“I feel like there’s that parallel for me growing up,” says Johnson, who says he generally felt protected in Malvern. “Michael has his brother and I just had the people around me in my community that respected what I did and showed me a lot of love.”
Some of the people Johnson had around him in Scarborough went Hollywood with him, including Black Academy founders Stephan James (If Beale Street Could Talk) and his brother Shamier Anderson (John Wick 4), and Dewshane Williams (Umbrella Academy).
Johnson, Williams and Anderson spent their childhood and teen years together dancing competitively, practising in their friends’ basements or the Scarborough Town rec centre, which would draw people in from all the way out in Rexdale. “We used to dance, play music and vibe out and hang out. Scarborough facilitated those things for people. Dance was a beautiful outlet for us that we can just not be on the streets and have something for us to build and grow. That passion for dance and the arts and those type of things it kind of transitioned over to acting.”
Johnson credits Anderson especially for propelling him forward into the arts. He talks about trying to break away from dancing while he was in ninth grade at Malvern’s Mother Teresa high school. He was competing in sports instead. But then he got a catch-up call from Anderson.
“You’re way too talented to just play sports,” Anderson told Johnson, before convincing the latter to audition for Wexford Collegiate, an arts school. That’s where they trained in theatre. And when James broke out into acting, appearing in movies directed by Ava DuVernay (Selma) and Barry Jenkins (Beale Street), the others followed.
“There’s this slogan we’ve created within my small community of people that are doing things outside of the country,” says Johnson. “Scarborough to the world.”
Madeira shares her admiration for the loyalty and pride she’s witnessed among the Scarborough folks she’s been meeting in her industry. “They made it out of the city, and really come back to put the city on,” she says. Scarborough people have a vibe, Madeira adds, describing it as a tone, slang, a sense of survival and having each other’s backs. “I don’t see people repping Mississauga like that.”
I’m still wondering what it is we’re repping when we’re repping Scarborough, a big place with a world of difference between Agincourt and Galloway. Johnson has his all-encompassing response. Madeira homes in on something that feels more elemental, like the hydro field that connects us. She positions Scarborough as a highly concentrated version of what Toronto is all about: the immigrant story.
She points out that Brother is the story of a Jamaican woman raising her children in Scarborough, a narrative her own family can easily relate to. Before moving to Mississauga, Madeira was born in Parkdale’s immigrant hub. And the vibe of living in a place like that is something you take with you, even generationally, she says. “I think when your parent is an immigrant, there is this sense of survival as well as of sticking together as a family.”
Chariandy concurs. He explains that places of arrival are naturally creative forces – and adds that Canada has a tendency to ignore their potential. Just look to Rexdale, the neighbourhood surrounding the airport – literally the place of arrival – where Brother is being filmed.
Just like Scarborough, Rexdale and the Dixon Road community in particular has been cast in a negative light by the media. But lately it has seen artists like filmmaker Thyrone Tommy (Learn To Swim) and playwright Fatuma Adar (Dixon Road) reclaiming their community’s narrative. Rexdale is now having a moment that Scarborough has been enjoying for a while.
“Scarborough is an engine of creativity because you have to be creative when you come from elsewhere and you’re not set up the ways other people are,” says Chariandy. “You have to make a go at it. That’s why Scarborough is in the air now.”