SUNDANCE FILM REVIEW: MONSTERS AND MEN Is An Engaging Drama About Race, Police, Violence
First time director Reinaldo Marcus Green brings his human drama about the toll of senseless violence, police brutality, and race inequality to the Sundance Film Festival with the movie Monsters and Men. The film, which deals with those topics through the perspective of three denizens of Brooklyn, is a gripping and emotive tale about the intractable difficulties that must be overcome to effect lasting change within these politically fraught topics. It is not necessarily a compelling persuasive piece—it stacks the deck in its favor, presenting the most sympathetic characters from within its own viewpoint, and the most horrid ones from the opposing side, the monsters of the title.
But while it may not have value in making anyone change their minds, it serves at least to remind those of us who think the current imbalance of power to be outrageous that the issue is critically important.
The movie begins with a black character played by football player and actor John David Washington pulled over for an apparently routine but tense traffic stop by a white cop. The man, Dennis Williams, is armed, and the audience immediately feels the tension because we read the news—this cannot possibly end well for him. As it turns out, Williams is a cop himself, but nevertheless the target of many such detentions. That is the overall social justice message of the movie, which then occupies the core of its story.
We first see Manny (Hamilton’s Anthony Ramos), a hardworking Hispanic dad who fortuitously films a live encounter between the police and one of his friends. The encounter ends with the police shooting the unarmed black man and falsely stating that the victim had reached for their guns. The cops in charge had a history of disciplinary issues, and quickly find and threaten Manny to keep him quiet. But Manny leaks the video to the Internet, and is arrested under false charges and planted evidence.
The story then hands off to Washington’s cop, a hardworking man who tries to keep his head down to do the right thing while flying under the radar, given his skin color. When the Manny situation arises, he is conflicted between testifying against the bad seed cops in charge, or keeping quiet to save his own skin.
I will not spoil the plot further other than to say that the third triptych of the film is a second handoff, this one to rising baseball star Zyrick (another Hamilton veteran, Kelvin Harrison, Jr.). Zyrick, himself the subject of the now-defunct stop and frisk violations in New York, grows increasingly frustrated at the situation evolving around him. However, his father, perhaps the voice of reason in this specific context, attempts to get him to forget protests and to focus on his ticket out of the dark reality, his baseball career.
The whole point of the three stories is to showcase not just the American realities of police brutality and race inequality, but also to go a layer deeper, into the frustrating and complicated decisions that people within a position to perhaps take action, feel constricted against doing so, and for good reason. Basically, the deck is so stacked in favor of the police, that not only is it possible for them to murder unarmed black folks, it is de facto legal for them to get away with it.
Monsters and Men is a movie that, sadly, is all too necessary still. Though it may feel to an overworked film critic that these movies, and particularly the bad, untouchable bad cop character, have been around forever, the topic remains sadly relevant to our times. And, if last year’s Detroit is any indication, the audiences for the most part are in escapism mode, they do not want to hear it. But they should hear it, and therein lies the intrinsic merit of this movie.
It helps, of course, that it is mostly well made, and is particularly remarkable for a first-time director. To be sure, the characters can be too facile at times—either 100% good or bad, but perhaps conflicted, at most—and the situations too contrived. But he avoids so many other common rookie pitfalls like extended dream sequences or purportedly symbolic camera work. Instead, what we have is a steady camera that follows the three main characters around, one at a time with visual cue handoffs. And, in spending only a short thirty minutes with each, he manages to teach through juxtaposition and analyze through contrast. It is clever and subtle, blink and you may miss it.
Some may also say that the film is ultimately unsatisfying, as few of the stories introduced are conclusively resolved. But that, of course, is the point. The issue has persisted for as long as discrimination was removed from the law books and transplanted onto the streets. And the conclusion, in particular the closing scenes, suggest to me that Green sees a resolution, at least down the road, that is evokes hope.