March 26, 2015
My Brother The Devil – UK, 2013
I have a feeling that Sally El Hosaini’s My Brother The Devil would have worked better for me had it been released in the 1980s or early 1990s. Many films from that period of time awakened audiences to the plights of immigrants in the United States and to the shockingly desperate state of many of America’s inner cities. To many people in the audience, these films were like a crash course in reality, showing them a world that up until then they had only heard anecdotes of. Fast forward twenty years, and what was once new and eye-opening can seem formulaic, and what once would have shocked can now seem rather passé. And so films like My Brother The Devil have lost their ability to shock in the same way that a film with a similar plot would have when what it had to say was not already common knowledge.
My Brother The Devil is about two brothers. The older one, Rashid (Rashid Jones), is a member of a gang known as the Devils, which operates on the troubled streets of the London Borough of Hackney. In an early scene, we watch as Rashid grills his younger brother, Mo (Fady Elsayed), about his grades. To Rashid, Mo has a shot at a real future, one that he hopes will take him down a far different road than the one he himself took. The problem, of course, is that Mo idolizes Rashid and views his life – in particular, the money, the adventure, and the women – as rather glamorous. If this sounds familiar, it’s because it is. Think Scarface, Angels with Dirty Faces, South Central, and Boyz n the Hood.
There’s even a subplot involving a fellow gang member who desperately wants out. In a telling scene, we watch as he kicks himself for not having stayed away from parties and drugs the night before a job interview. The look on his fact tells us just how much more he wants out of life. Characters such as these are usually written in because their fates can inspire others to make hard choices, so when a tussle breaks out between the Demons and a rival gang, it isn’t hard to guess which of the young men from Rashid’s gang won’t make it out alive. A more daring film might have kept him around longer and allowed him to keep influencing Rashid. Instead, that role falls to another character, a photographer named Sayyid (Said Taghmaoui), who at first reminded me a bit of the inspirational inmate in Stephen Milburn Anderson’s South Central, I half expected Said at some point to shout, “Yes, I’m going to preach, and you’re going to listen!”
As the film progresses, Rashid and Mo begin to change places. Rashid starts to aspire more from life, while Mo gets drawn increasingly further into the criminal world. This all leads to one of those typical moments in which a gang member pleads with his gang to leave someone alone in exchange for doing one last job. One guess how that turns out. There is also a subplot involving a key character’s sexual awakening, and in an earlier time, this would have made My Brother The Devil stand out. However, this is another way in which the film is following instead of leading, and I’m not sure the film has anything new to add to the narrative on the subject.
I don’t mean to imply that I didn’t enjoy some of the film, for I did, just not as much as I wanted to. Little that transpires in it felt new to me, and as a result, I watched it with a curious detachment. Here were characters I should have like more and should have been more invested in, and all I could think about was how I had seen it all before. This is not to say that a film cannot have similar plots to other films in the same genre, but rather that sticking too closely to that genre can strip a film of its power and make moments that should be suspenseful feel as uninvolving as a selfie taken in front of a popular tourist destination. After all, who wants to look at a picture of a place you’ve seen hundreds of times already? (on DVD)
2 and a half stars