Fady Elsayed and James Floyd star as the brothers in “My Brother the Devil.” Photo by Simon Wheatley
Brotherly Love in a Multi-Culti World
by Yayoi L. Winfrey
Featuring a multiethnic cast in a story about second-generation immigrant gang-bangers, “My Brother the Devil” is a unique fusion film. Not only is director Sally El Hosaini mixed-race (Welsh and Egyptian), so is her star James Floyd (Indian and British). Besides its real-life cross-cultural cast and crew, this movie further stirs the melting pot by adding the flavor of fictional characters from various backgrounds.
With London’s Eastside borough of Hackney as a backdrop, scenes seem to indicate that all of England’s former colonies have followed their colonizers back home. The diverse neighborhood is a concert of accents—lilting Caribbean, rhythmic West African, crisp Arabic, and sing-songy Pakistani. Together, those voices ring lyrically like hanging chimes stirring in the wind.
But this feature narrative is no fairytale of musical accents. Clearly, Hackney is a rough neighborhood teeming with impoverished teens searching for identity. Unfortunately, most of them will find theirs in drinking, drugs and dangerous liaisons at the intersection of adolescence and adulthood.
For Rash, short for Rashid (James Floyd), it means leading the DMG, an acronym for Drugs, Money and Guns, that sells cocaine and marijuana to other poor folks in their community. Conflicted in more ways than one, Rash is aware of his role in the family hierarchy. As the eldest son in an Arab family that emigrated from Cairo, he feels responsible for providing them with comforts that his fathers’ and bus drivers’ salaries can’t.
Rash is also idolized by his younger brother Mo, short for Mohammed (Fady Elsayed), yet is adamant that he not follow in his footsteps and, instead, focus on school. Alas, plans go awry and along with dope-dealing and a gangster named Demon, a death occurs. After promising payback, Rash has an epiphany upon meeting Sayyid (Said Taghmaoui), a former gang-banger turned successful photographer.
Although their Muslim faith is not the nucleus of their lives, Rash’s family is politically savvy. While eating dinner with Rash’s guest Sayyid, his father brings up the recent unrest in Egypt.
Urging him towards activism, Sayyid asks:“Why else did we end up here? We should get more involved in the democratic process.”
But young Mo distinguishes himself from his parents’ homeland by angrily protesting, “We didn’t ‘end up’ here. Was born here!”
For a woman, writer and director El Hosaini seems to know a lot about the inner workings of men, especially macho types who use the streets as their playground. Her male characters are rich and complex, but paradoxically, her females are not. Instead, they tend to be sweetly vacuous like Mo’s “boo”Aisha, or just a booty call like Rash’s girl, Vanessa. There’s another, a sort of druggie den mother, who lingers as a backdrop to the boys in the ‘hood. Then, there’s Rash’s and Mo’s own mother who can’t just relax and watch her Bollywood flicks; instead, she sorts rice at the same time.
As intriguing as its characters are, there’s so much “My Brother the Devil” tries to cover that gaps are left unfilled. For instance, when Rash’s father makes a racist comment in front of family and friends.
“I’m sick of you hanging out with these black boys,” he tells Rash, yet Mo inexplicably falls in love with the brown-skinned Aisha.
And, as much as Mo reveres his bad ass brother, he himself is curiously drawn to the aforementioned hijab-wearing young lady, an innocuous soul who’s moved into his thug-infested neighborhood.
Amazingly artful cinematography by David Raedeker almost causes the film to lose its grit. Using colors in intriguing ways, he creates surreal skies with moody blues and hot reds. His camera captures remarkable images, like a waving tree branch or a curtain gently blowing in a single window of a building dense with windows. In one alleyway scene, the lighting is so striking as a double-decker bus passes behind it.
Original music by Stuart Earl, while mesmerizing, is mostly rap, of course. Ironically, what became the anthem of young, black men in American ghettoes has now come full circle as the kids of African, Asian and Arab immigrants adopt it — along with bumping knuckles and other symbols of what once represented black unity in the U.S.
The fact that a mixed-race South Asian actor like James Floyd can play an Egyptian with sensitivity and style indicates humanity is evolving.
Performances definitely make this film, but the question remains as to which brother is the real devil.
“My Brother the Devil” is playing at the Landmark Varsity Theatre in Seattle.