Of the recent wave of movies dealing with the subject of racism, one of the lesser talked about films is Reinaldo Marcus Green’s “Monsters and Men”. It premiered at Sundance 2018, was picked up for distribution by Neon, and was released in late September to very little buzz. That’s a shame because most of what we get works exceptionally well.
The movie is broken into three acts, each linked by a single incident that takes place in a Brooklyn neighborhood. The first two are the most organically connected while the third is more out on its own. It’s also the one story that is the most obvious and easily the most predictable. While the story seems ripped from the headlines, Green attempts to dig beneath them to show three unique perspectives and the impact the incident has on these three lives.
A powerful opening starts things on a strong foot. A law-abiding black man is driving through the city singing along to Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together”. For seemingly no reason blue lights flash and he’s pulled over. Director Green and his cinematographer Patrick Scola keep the camera on the driver’s face in an intense closeup that shows the boiling frustration but also the keen awareness of senseless danger. The black man is Dennis Williams (John David Washington), an off duty Brooklyn cop. We later discover it’s the sixth time he’s been pulled over in six months.
The first act centers around Manny Ortega (Anthony Ramos) who lives in his mother’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood apartment with his expecting wife and their young daughter. While on his way to meet friends he witnesses an altercation between a local fixture Darius “Big D” Larson (Samuel Edwards) and the NYPD. Darius is shot dead and Manny captures it all on his phone. Now he must decide whether to share the footage with the world or keep it to himself and protect his family.
The second act moves back to Dennis, a well-respected police officer and devoted family man. His precinct faces strong public backlash following the shooting and Dennis struggles to make sense of it all. He’s a good cop who knows first-hand the reality of racial profiling in the department but also the dangers police officers face anytime they strap on the vest. Washington gives the film’s standout performance, deeply sensitive and effortlessly charismatic.
The third act doesn’t quite pack the punch of the other two and comes across as more calculated. It’s premise is good. Zyrick (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is a promising high school baseball prospect who has pro scouts salivating. This excites his father (the always good Rob Morgan) who sees this as his son’s ticket out of the inner city. But after the shooting of Big D, Zyrick is compelled to join a protest group and let his voice be heard. But at what cost to his bright future?
Green makes several interesting choices. First we never see the altercation between Big D and the police with our own eyes. Instead we see the reactions to the video from the film’s three key players. Perhaps most interesting is how none of the three stories have a tidy ending. Is it because we still don’t have a satisfying real-world answer? Is it to allow us to wrestle with and resolve their stories for ourselves? Either way I found it effective.
Despite losing steam in its third act, “Monsters and Men” maintains a steady sense of intimacy and relevance. Its stories feel personal and offer unique points of view on a smoldering current issue. And they’re told through several really good performances, especially from John David Washington. With only a handful of films under his acting belt, he’s already shown himself to be one of the industry’s most charismatic talents.
VERDICT – 4 STARS