My Brother the Devil is a solid example of how meat-and-potatoes craftsmanship, combined with an influx of cultural and ethnic diversity, can invigorate cinema and its genres.
On its surface, the film is a standard Boyz N The Hood narrative frame: a young man from an economically devastated neighborhood decides its time for him to grow out of the violent street culture in which he’s spent his youth – with all the attendant feelings of confusion, torn loyalties, sullied pride, and honor that attend the rupture. But it shifts the story to the Arab slums of London, and bounces the journey off religion, politics, prejudice, and sexual orientation in unexpected ways. Both brothers slide in and out of the protagonist and antagonist roles as the film progresses, and the title is ultimately both an accusation and a term of endearment either could level against the other.
Those two brothers are the elder Rashid (James Floyd) – a trusted member of a close-knit circle of local drug runners – and the scholastic Mo (Fady Elsayed) who idolizes his older brother. Rashid is torn between inducting Mo into the fold and preserving his sibling’s chances at a legitimate future, but soon he finds himself buffeted by his own set of competing forces. Rashid’s best friend Izzi (Anthony Welsh) has managed to secure himself a legally legitimate job, and he guards his foothold against his friends’ influences kindly but firmly. He also introduces Rashid to Sayyid (Said Taghmaoui) a charismatic upper-class photographer with a political streak, who opens Rashid’s eyes to a world of wider possibilities.
Then Rashid and Mo’s world is blown open when a brutal and pointless series of confrontations with a rival gang ends in Izzi’s murder. In response, Rashid begins to systematically extract himself from the gangland culture, even as Mo makes a play to take his older brother’s place among the drug runners.
So like I said, we’ve seen this story before. There is the requisite drama and moments of tension, and of course a climactic act of violence. But everything I described above plays out by the end of the first act, and My Brother the Devil navigates the remainder of its narrative in vibrant and unexpected ways. These turns help to flesh out the community: the tensions between family members, the loyalties between friends, the ecology of the local gang rivalries, the pull of the old culture and religion, the unspoken fear of and attraction to political militancy, and the simmering hold of social prejudices. The opening credits lay the groundwork, interspersing cuts of Rashid and Mo with a series of joyous photographs of the street culture in the London slums. It suggests that even this violent and seemingly dysfunctional milieu is something that can be seen through the sepia-tones of youthful nostalgia, and that a person leaves behind only with a heavy heart.
The real core of the film is the performances, especially by Floyd as Rashid. He nails the cusp-of-manhood feel, portraying an instinctive intelligence and devotion to a way of life, but also the discovery of new capacities for emotional control, and the possibility of self-expression via routes other than violence and machismo. Welsh is solid as Izzi, and Taghoumi gives Sayyid the poignant uncertainty of a man who wants to help his cultural brethren, but doesn’t know how to bridge the divide of class that sets him apart. Letitia Wright also shines in the smaller role of Aisha, Mo’s romantic interest, bringing a quiet sense of dignity and self-possession to young woman who’s at once devoted to her religion and enlivened by the antics of her fellows. Elsayed’s role is less complex – Mo is more a singular force of driven and confused youth in comparison to Rashid’s evolution – but he carries it out with aplomb. The rest of the cast is grounded and effective, filling their roles with a distinct sense of place while never overplaying the drama.
This is all helped along by a hauntingly minimalist electronic score, and by writer and director Sally El Hosaini. She keeps a steady and confident hand on the dialogue, the structure, the editing and the camera work. She understands the needs of her story, and takes a less-is-more approach to her creative flourishes. If you’re looking for female writer/directors to keep an eye on, El Hosaini should definitely be on your list.