JAZ MORRISON | dec 2018
BRoTHERHOOD was released in cinemas nationwide in 2016, a feat and step in the right direction regarding representations of Black Brits onscreen and behind the scenes. Writer-Director and star of the film, Noel Clarke was able to have the final instalment of his gritty trilogy on the big screen. Despite doing financially well, the film was met negatively by critics and many fans of Clarke’s previous films, regarding the narrative as well as representations of gender. Using textual analysis, I intend to analyse the messages within the text to gain insight into why the film had such a negative reception upon its release. Brotherhood explores responsibility, love and desperation from the perspective of Sam Peel, the trilogy’s antagonist-turned-protagonist. Peel’s life is once again thrown into turmoil when a figure from his past comes back into his life. Meanings and connotations regarding gender are present throughout the text.
Fundamentally, gender is a social construction often used to emphasise distinctions between males and females. It is learned and socially endorsed from childhood (Ottoh-Agede, Essien-Eyo, 2014: 19). In regard to viewing gender in film, Laura Mulvey’s Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema is my key reading. She states that women onscreen intentionally evoke to-be-looked-at-ness by being dressed and positioned to stimulate a male gaze. I intend to use this in conjunction with decoding representations of women within the text. Adam Jukes appears to be in agreement with Mulvey, asserting that generally, men look for an impossible ideal in women – a woman who is able to provide all emotional labour; complete all physical duties and chores in the home; be chaste, yet ‘a whore’; and always look beautiful (1994: 89, 97). The inability to live up to such expectations results in the devaluing, punishment, and/or saving of the woman by the man (Mulvey, 1999: 842). However, Sean Nixon’s research into masculinity has brought up the concept of the ‘new man’ who is passively sexualised, implying that the gaze isn’t solely on women, nor are women excluded from looking (1997: 304). Nixon also acknowledges hypermasculinity – a dominant and extreme form of masculinity, where hostility and hegemony are viewed as desirable (Buckingham-Hatfield, 2000: 4). This behaviour is often romanticised in superheroes, who essentially behave as vigilantes within a society (Kvaran, 2017: 220, 227-8) – in such instances, hypermasculinity is a benefit to the protagonist and his peers, and he is subsequently rewarded for exhibiting it (Buckingham-Hatfield, 2000: 4). Hypermasculinity is also infamously associated with dark-skinned Black males (and females) due to the likening of Black people to animals, as well as fantasies surrounding and projected onto Black sexuality (Nixon, 1997: 305; Malik, Nwonka, 2017: 441) – this could be labelled a ‘white’ or ‘non-black’ gaze. Class shapes masculinity in a different way – authority is more secure when one has financial strength and assets (Buckingham-Hatfield, 2000: 2-3). This view is reserved to men. Regardless of what class women are in, they still historically fall victim to a limited range of representations onscreen, in which they are often there to be looked at or saved (Nulman, 2014; Collins, 2011).
This research question requires textual analysis. My chosen methodologies are a combination of semiotic and discourse analyses. I decided to use both because whilst semiotics focus on signs – whatever they may be – and their acquired meaning in society, discourse analysis is able to provide some social context to certain signs. A film like Brotherhood has various signs embedded within the text – in the soundtrack, camera direction and dialogue, for example, and all carry meaning. But as Brotherhood is less than three years old, the social context surrounding the film at the time it was released has not drastically changed. Discourses surrounding certain signs often fill them with meaning, and thus are important to acknowledge for analysis and to, essentially, answer the question I have posed. I decided to look at representations of gender through recognisable stereotypes represented within the text. The first half of my analyses goes towards women as ‘Wife’, ‘Seductress’, and ‘Child’, with a focus on Kayla, Sariya, and Poppy. The second half goes towards men as ‘Conqueror’ and ‘Conquered’, with a focus on Sam, Curtis, and Daley. The limitations that come with a textual analysis is that there is an element of subjectivity, and thus, this film has been examined from a ‘certain cultural and inherently biased position’ (Nulman, 2014: 916). Though I approach the text as a researcher, my Blackness and femininity is not absent, and may play a factor in how I decode certain signs. What I ‘decode’ may not be what was originally intended; it may not be what general audiences interpret either (Hall, 1973:30-1).
WOMEN: ‘WIFE’, ‘SEDUCTRESS’, AND ‘CHILD’
When addressing representations of women in film, it is important to acknowledge that though gender is organised around biological sex, it is a social construction – a set of ‘characteristics and roles’ attributed to maleness and femaleness. The general consensus is that individuals will benefit from conforming to these norms (Buckingham-Hatfield, 2000: 3-4). As women are often associated with compassion, cooperation, emotion, and vulnerability (Ottoh-Agede, Essien-Eyo, 2014: 21), their humanity has often been divided into the Three Faces of Eve , consisting of the ‘Wife’, the ‘Seductress’ and the ‘Child’. These archetypes are overt within Brotherhood. Sam’s wife - Kayla, along with Sam’s mother, Alisa, Ashanti, and Royston’s fiancé, all fall into the ‘Wife’ trope. Though they are not all married, they all are mothers, and their inclusion in the plot is because of their romantic or maternal link to a male character (Nulman, 2014: 900). The ‘Wife’ with the most screen time is Kayla, and she is presented as the manifestation of the many expectations of women in society. Adam Jukes terms this the ‘Princess Syndrome’ (1994:88 - 97). Kayla looks after the children, maintains the house, and has a well-paid job in law (00:07:05 – 00:07:51), yet finds herself reliant on Sam who works four jobs so that he can financially provide for the family (he refuses to be there emotionally or even physically). As they discuss this at the beginning of the film, Kayla remains calm, smiling and even quipping at times, and when Sam suddenly lashes out, she crouches in front of him, changing the levels between them in an act of visual submission. This happens naturally – there is no pause, and she does not even frown. She is what Jukes refers to as a ‘highly adapted female partner’, but though she has become used to Sam’s behaviour, it does not protect her from his ‘sadistic feelings’ towards her (1994: 99). This contradicts the assertions made by Susan Buckingham-Hatfield that conforming to notions of femininity will provide women with rewards. All Kayla appears to want from Sam is his presence and loyalty: ‘I just need to know that you’re my guy. If I know that, I’ll ride for you every step of the way’ (01:37:27). Sam does not give her this, requesting that she stay at her mother’s house for the majority of the runtime, as well as cheating on her. Despite all the concessions the Kayla has made, she, like the ‘Seductress’ and the ‘Child’ is subject to Sam’s abusive behaviour (00:45:52, 01:03:37). It is implied here that the archetype she falls into is fundamentally unimportant because, as Laura Mulvey asserts, the woman ‘symbolises the castration threat by her real absence of a penis’, and so is naturally – in Kayla’s instance, devalued, punished and then saved as a means to control her (Mulvey, 1999: 833, 840; Buckingham-Hatfield, 2000: 47).
The most devalued and punished is the ‘Seductress’. Janette is the main representative of this archetype within the film, though Sariya and the various naked women dotted throughout the film purposelessly, credited as ‘sex slaves’  and ‘imported foreign slags’ (00:31:55) are included in this – acting as examples of how men often regard women as a sexual object to ‘aggressively […] penetrate and possess’ (Jukes, 1994: 7). Much of the men in Brotherhood regard women this way: ‘you beat that Tonia ting yet?’ (00:25:20) ‘He fucks ‘em, then beats the shit out of ‘em,’ (00:32:21) ‘If he fucks with me, I’m raping it,’ (00:26:15). Janette’s role in the film is to entice Sam into having sex with her, in which she is successful. Similarly to the ‘sex slaves’ and Sariya, she is there to be made subject to a ‘controlling and curious gaze’ (Mulvey, 1999: 835). All of them are devalued and punished as a result – Sariya is beaten up by Daley, Janette is attacked by Sam, and the mass of women – all victims of sex trafficking, are consistently abused by Daley and his entourage, and are mistreated by the police who eventually storm the house after the film’s climactic scene (01:21:53). Neither Janette or Sariya have developed personalities or character arcs, and both do not exist independently. They, along with the trafficked women, are an extension of power – only present as a stylised, fetishized, fragmented and replaceable set of body parts (Buckingham-Hatfield, 2000: 51-2; Mulvey, 1999:841; Collins, 2011: 290) to provide a sense of distraction and stimulation to the men in the film (Wheatley, 2016 :190). It is implied that Noel Clarke (the writer, director and star of the film) wants us to feel an element of sympathy for Janette. This is done gradually, beginning with feigned smiles (00:37:46), justifications (‘I have to’) and tears over the murder of Sam’s mother (00:56:45), and ending with her begging for mercy before Sam punches her in the face (01:24:22), hospitalising her. This plays into notions around femininity once again – that women are compassionate and emotional. The fact that Janette, the only female antagonist is a sex trafficking victim being used like a prop further implies that she – and women by default – cannot truly be evil. Nonetheless, she is still punished for not being controlled by the protagonist (Jukes, 1994: 6,8,39; Mulvey, 1999: 843). Sariya, the only ‘Seductress’ who is remotely avenged, only receives such treatment because of her brother, Brick (‘my sister was raped by that fucker’; ‘that’s my little fucking sister’) who is determined to punish “Mooks” for taking advantage of what is his.
Though some literal female ‘Children’ appear in the text – Sam’s daughter, Mimi, and Alisa’s daughter, Thea – Poppy is the character who fits this archetype and has the most lines. A member of Daley’s entourage, Poppy does almost nothing other than spout pseudo-progressive criticisms of police brutality and sexism (00:25:58), and be shocked by the misogynistic and devaluing repartee between her male peers (00:26:27). She is white with bright blue eyes, blonde hair in pigtails, and a lollipop is almost always in her mouth. Though we do not learn her age, it is made clear through costume choices that she is young. ‘Since adult women have the option to draw on many masculine traits […], it is easier to see the feminine traits […] if we look to protagonists who do not naturally possess physical strength, fighting skills, or independence. This would be the very young female child,’ Emerson attests, even drawing attention to The Golden Compass and Alice in Wonderland, storylines that feature protagonists with similar physical characteristics to Poppy (2009: 133). She is reckless for having the company she keeps – demonstrated by Drew’s increasingly predatory behaviour towards her (00:26:15, 01:09:48) – and no clear motivation for doing so. When Sam asks why she “wastes her time with them”, her response is ambiguous: ‘why did you when you were younger?’ (1:14:34). It could be assumed that she desires protection – it is clear she does not receive respect – as when out in public, women are often vulnerable to ‘space invasion[s]’, where they are subject to sexual harassment (Ottoh-Agede, Essien-Eyo, 2014: 20). But when Sam drags her out of the fast food shop (01:11:30), there is nobody available to come to her aid; her colleague, Wino, is already debilitated. Going back to Sam’s question posed to her, there is an element of presumed innocence. The phrasing of the question positions Poppy as an innocent bystander, instead of someone who has actively played a part in destabilising Sam’s life (00:45:09). Once again, the connotations surrounding femininity come into play, mitigating Poppy’s role in the plot. If it is assumed by Sam that Carl (who is nineteen) has a level of comprehension of what he is involved in and is being asked to do (1:17:21), it should be brought into question why the same isn’t assigned to Poppy.
MEN: THE ‘CONQUEROR’ OR THE ‘CONQUERED’
When looking at the behaviour of the men within Brotherhood, there is a reoccurring motif of Conqueror versus Conquered, with Sam, Curtis and Daley being the primary characters caught up in the power struggle. In focusing on gender and the environment, Buckingham-Hatfield notes how the attainment of power and influence, and its link to capital is the foundation on which the current system of capitalism both exists and was spread (2000: 2). This desire for capital permeates the film, in the form of sex, finance, assets, and company. Previously, I have explained how in regard to women, men hold the power as a unit, but it is important to acknowledge that power relations also exist between ‘different masculinities’ (Nixon, 1997: 301). The character we’re invited to identify with, Sam, starts off as ‘Conquered’, considering that dominant masculinity is associated with assertiveness, authority, competitiveness and aggression (Buckingham-Hatfield, 2000: 4). He’s introduced without assets or finance – he works four jobs and doesn’t own a car (00:04:39), and isn’t at the level of physical fitness he would like (00:05:42). Acknowledging the dehumanisation of women within the film, it could be argued that his only asset is his wife and children, with his wife also being included under the category of sex. At the beginning of the film, he lashes out at her when she asks him to spend time with their children: ‘that’s what you do, I work four jobs’; ‘my job is to provide and protect this family and that’s what I do’; ‘No! I look after us, that’s what I do!’ (00:07:54). This tantrum-like behaviour is exhibited at several points throughout the film: he beats his chest, destroys his television and coffee table (00:46:23, 00:53:18), punches the floor (01:01:05), handles a knife, throws his head repeatedly against a cupboard door, and throws and hits furniture and people (01:04:07). Ultimately these examples are an expression of frustration – a retaliation to a lack of control. Based on the standard character arc articulated by KM Weiland and used in most films, it would be plausible to believe that by the end of the film Sam’s priorities would have realigned, with his family being so important to him that he is willing to confront his ego and abandon his pride, finally understanding that his presence in his family’s life is more important than his finances. This does not happen. Instead, Sam fights a bloodthirsty Curtis and, because of police intervention, makes it out alive (01:32:41), gives Daley up to Sariya and Brick, and steals a bag of cash containing millions of pounds (01:34:22). This allows him to do exactly what he wanted at the beginning of the film – financially provide (01:35:55). The plot gives him the dramatic landscape, where all he seemed to need was his fists to become ‘Conqueror’. Brotherhood subsequently becomes ‘a vehicle for stroking the male ego’ or ‘a man’s film’ (Sherwin, 2008: 176). Instead of Sam being humbled by the experience, he emerges from it hero-like. ‘Yeah, babe. Yeah. It’s done,’ he finally responds at the end of the film, looking straight ahead with his head held high (01:39:41), with braggadocio rap music signalling the end of the film. When his presence in the film is examined more closely, it can be argued that Sam falls under the trope of a ‘Vigilante’ or ‘Anti-hero’, as he lost his mother violently, dons his hoodie as his ‘costumed disguise’ (he also does this in AdULTHOOD), and essentially fights crime (Kvaran, 2017: 219-20). As he states to his wife ‘I’m not perfect. I’m just – you know, I’m just one of those guys’ (01:37:27). This is problematic. Throughout the film, Sam’s “masculine” behaviour had not only consistently gotten him in trouble, but it seldom produced the results he wanted. It is also worth noting that the film was supposed to allude to how Sam’s hostility in the first instalment of the trilogy was the source of all his problems several years later. For him to have exactly what he wanted at the end of the film without earning it reaffirms the notion of certain behaviours being rewarded in men (Buckingham-Hatfield, 2000: 4, 34).
Curtis and Daley, Sam’s primary antagonists are not only wrestling for power with Sam, but with each other. Here, the ‘different masculinities’ are invoked. Daley’s masculinity is rooted in his assets: his money, houses, cars, escorts, and the loyalty of his entourage (00:28:41). Curtis’s masculinity is rooted in his aesthetic – his Jamaican accent and dark skin. The use of Blackness to indicate hypermasculinity has a history dating back hundreds of years (Nixon, 1997: 305) and is aroused in the text when Daley likens Curtis to a ‘silverback [monkey] waiting to fight’ (00:37:47). Sarita Malik and Clive James Nwonka have commented on the trend of British texts depicting a Black [male] ‘underclass’ associated with social disadvantage and using criminality to attain status (2017: 424). Class and race begin to inform the variations in masculinities, and in order to achieve dominance, their bodies become a ‘site upon which rituals of torture and violence are materialised’ (Llinares, 2015: 209). Curtis and Daley do not fight as frequently as the other men in the film, including Sam, but they often exercise their authority over others. Sam would have never been targeted if it wasn’t for Curtis (00:36:02), and his mother would still be alive if it wasn’t for Daley (00:56:45). Subsequently, both antagonists are introduced as ‘Conquerors’ to a certain degree, and – unlike Sam – their hypermasculine traits and associations become the cause of their downfall. Curtis’s primary masculine trait is his competitiveness. His goal in the film is to take everything away from Sam so he could ‘earn’ the honour of killing him (01:29:35), but this backfires when he is bested in a fight, and killed by the police. Daley’s main masculine trait is his aggression. He doesn’t have a particular goal for the majority of the film. He has already inherited the wealth and resources that most of the male characters are aspiring for. Daley beats women (00:32:21), threatens police officers (00:47:59) and attacks the members of his own entourage (01:24:22). It is only when Sam begins to threaten his comfortable life does Daley’s goal begin to manifest as self-preservation. As Daley begins to lose control of his assets, he becomes vulnerable. By the time Sam, Siraya, Brick, and Calvin have broken into Daley’s third home, he has lost his entourage and his escorts, and when Sam leaves the premises, Daley has lost his money and presumably his life (01:34:59). In these instances, masculinity is presented in its extremes (hypermasculinity): unlike Sam, Curtis and Daley are willing to kill innocent people (00:56:45, 01:30:07), regularly abuse sex workers (00:31:55, 00:53:09), and betray one another (1:33:32, 1:34:48) in order to hold power over women and other men. And consequently, they are killed for it.
From looking at the Brotherhood and how it represents both men and women, it is evident that the text conforms to traditionally held beliefs around what it is to be male or female. Through the way the majority of the women are portrayed onscreen, having no lines and no clothes, they connote to-be-looked-at-ness only. Almost no women have any impact on the plot, nor do they possess any semblance of a personality. As for the men, many are presented as hypermasculine, including the film’s protagonist Sam. Similarly to the women, the men receive punishment within the film for their behaviour, but are more developed characters, and are given the space and privilege within a patriarchal and capitalist society to take the place of either the ‘Conqueror’ or the ‘Conquered’. Though women are given three archetypes to fall into, each decision reaps a varying degree of punishment. Being loyal, compassionate and compromising has no bearing on the outcome.
Although this film performed financially well, portrayals of gender and their interpreted meanings have led to a negative reception. A slew of traditional representations of gender in a film no older than three years came as an unpleasant surprise to critics. This could have long term implications on the Black British filmmaking community in terms of receiving film funding and further support in the future. Thus, it is important to be sensitive to audience interpretations. A potential next step could be conducting interviews with fans of the trilogy, to further examine issues surrounding gender within the text.
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