D: Reinaldo Marcus Green / 96m
Cast: John David Washington, Anthony Ramos, Kelvin Harrison Jr, Chanté Adams, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Nicole Beharie, Rob Morgan, Cara Buono
Manuel “Manny” Ortega (Ramos) is a young man with a family who is trying to make a living in the Bed-Stuy area of New York. He skirts along the edges of the local criminal community, although in a very minor capacity. While out one night he witnesses six police officers attempting to detain an unarmed black man called Big D. As he films the incident on his mobile phone, the man is shot and killed by one of the officers. In the days that follow, Manny wavers between posting the incident online or keeping quiet. When his home is broken into, Manny suspects the police have done it, and so he uploads the footage. For local police officer Dennis Williams (Washington), his knowledge of the officer involved and the clearcut nature of the killing, causes him to have mixed feelings about the growing outcry at the death of Big D, and his own position as a black police officer. For promising teenage baseball player Zyrick Norris (Harrison Jr), the shooting prompts him into joining a local activist group headed by Zoe (Adams), while putting his professional future on the line…
The debut feature of noted short movie maker Reinaldo Marcus Green, Monsters and Men takes an all too familiar scenario, that of a potentially unlawful killing by police, and instead of focusing on the rights or wrongs of the act itself, examines the wider effects of such an incident on a handful of connected individuals. It’s a deceptively bold approach, and one that allows Green to give his movie a simple yet dramatically daring structure, one that doesn’t provide the viewer with any resolutions or permanent outcomes. Instead, each of the three main characters is left at a pivotal moment in their life, their futures undecided but influenced by the actions that have brought them to these moments. Manny has just started a new job and is in the process of putting his criminal past behind him; releasing the footage will bring him a notoriety he can’t afford. But he’s also proud, and he won’t be intimidated by the attentions of the police, so he posts the footage online, only to find that doing the right thing can come at a price. It’s a bittersweet victory, but one that, surprisingly, still offers hope for Manny and his family.
Dennis is a career police officer, aware that some of his fellow officers aren’t afraid to cross the line, but unwilling to do the same. This brings him into conflict with his friends and colleagues, and facing potential problems from Internal Affairs, but like Manny he has his own personal moral code, and he won’t submit to compromise, even if deep down, he knows he should. Perhaps the most interesting of the three is Zyrick, a teenager on the verge of a lucrative baseball career who discovers a willingness to be politicised when marches and protests are organised in the wake of Big D’s death. Zyrick has the fervour and the commitment of a neophyte, and it’s his nascent moral code that drives the movie’s final third, and finds the character making a choice between baseball and activism that is both powerful and galvanising. The three leads all give tremendous performances, their varied characters providing the viewer with different inroads to different aspects of the story, and their inner conflicts convincingly expressed and portrayed. Along the way, Green avoids any obvious preaching, and keeps things pleasingly realistic, an achievement that highlights just how intelligently handled it all is, and just how good Green is as a writer/director.
Rating: 9/10 – with a growing sense of urgency that’s allowed to unfold at a steady, yet engrossing pace, and photography to match it from DoP Patrick Scola, Monsters and Men is a gritty reminder that some racial tensions may never be resolved; persuasive and effective thanks to the decision to present differing, complex moral attitudes – and not judging any of them – this is a movie that creates its own narrative template, and is a terrific example of purposeful firebrand movie making.