It would be easy to from first glance crassly classify My Brother the Devil as simply a “race picture”, but in actual fact, it’s really more about culture, as writer-director Sally El Hosaini examines the miasmal effects of gangs on two Egyptian East London brothers, 14-year-old Mo (Fady Elsayad) and his older sibling, Rashid (James Floyd). Given the glut of sub-par “yoof” films that have pervaded our cinemas in recent years – largely at the behest of various Kidhulthood alumni – it’s undeniably refreshing to see something that feels so worthy and authentic, down to the outstanding performances of the siblings as much as Hosaini’s script, which dabbles in familiar territory yet overcomes this potential limitation with a visceral thrust and considerable emotional power.
It’s intensely terrifying to watch Rashid try to prevent his brother from gravitating towards a life of gang crime, while the usual culture-clash clichés of British cultural cinema are mostly accepted as a given here, with the focus instead shifting to the oppressive tower blocks of the impoverished East End, somehow beautifully shot despite so often resembling concrete prisons. Naturally, it all gets grimly unpleasant soon enough, though, and the self-destructive power of machismo – in which “winning” trumps even the fear of death – becomes painfully, devastatingly apparent. The seemingly unstoppable cycle of violence that Hosaini conveys – in which even those only tacitly related, and those keen to extricate themselves from the gangs are unsafe – is compounded by the frustrating lack of options available to those in the gangs who decide they want more than a life spent slinging drugs on street corners.
One sub-plot involving Rashid’s photographer friend Sayidd (played by Saïd Taghmaoui, surely a self-reflexive take on his role in La Haine) might feel a tad excessive, though it does open up a grander dialogue about the extent to which machismo reaches in gang culture, allowing things to splinter off in a far more interesting direction than other Boyz n the Hood-esque yarns. These threads gel together to set the stage for a tense showdown, unexpectedly anxiety-inducing, no doubt aided by Stuart Earl’s pulsing score, and the pacy, stylish direction. Nevertheless, Hosaini resists the urge to go the full, predictably final nine yards, instead finding a more compelling way to end the story than a cut-and-dried shootout denouement.
A familiar story effectively re-invented, My Brother the Devil deals heartbreak, suspense and hope in equal measure.
My Brother the Devil is released in UK cinemas on November 9th.
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