American police brutality continues to inspire bold cinematic outrage in this desperately sad directorial debut from Reinaldo Marcus Green. The film comes hot on the heels of last year’s The Hate U Give and skews a similar story of social ramification for more mature audiences, who will find themselves quietly affected and perhaps even mobilised.
Whereas George Tillman Jr.’s take on the Angie Thomas book evolved around the perspective of a young woman, Green divides his focus three ways and upon three young African-American men. Each represents a different stage in roughly the same generation and each finds themselves profoundly implicated in the killing of a black man by a trigger-happy white police officer. Having impressed in BlackKKlansman, John David Washington once again lives up to his family name in the role of Dennis, a NYPD officer whose loyalty to the force is coarsely repaid by his continuously being pulled up while driving. A tier down is Anthony Ramos’ Manny, a young father on the cusp of beginning a job in security. It is he, unsurprisingly given his career, who has the initiative to film the incident with which the film is concerned but his shock on seeing one man taken by six officers – simply for selling illegal cigarettes – rapidly cascades to devastation when he inadvertently captures murder. Much like Dennis, Manny finds himself torn between race and family and his duties to both.
Finally, the triptych is rounded off by Zee, a promising high school baseball star played by Kevin Harrison Jr. His connection to the victim – who was widely known as Big D – was fleeting and yet he is drawn to the resistance on seeing Manny’s footage. He too faces the dilemma of family, who want him to stay out of trouble, and racial protest but, unlike most characters in the cinema of equality, his link is almost incidental. Perhaps that’s the root of his significance here; Zee is no leader but he is every bit as important as the rink leaders with the loudest voices. With regard to those who stay silent and within institutional perimeters, Green expresses only disappointment. Twice in his script characters lament the failure of friends and family to make a stand: ‘I thought you were different’.
To this end, nuance reigns supreme in every one of the film’s battles. Fluid camera movements pervade, often handled with immense beauty, and are only occasionally replaced by the chaos of handheld motion. In one brilliantly conceived shot, we follow a character who appears to be literally walking on a police barricade due to the angle at which the camera is held. Prior to that, Green maximises the potential of a car’s rear view mirror for stylish effect. Enveloping these joys, the film’s music is gentle and action pieces restrained. Poetic lyricism entangles with a deeply honest realism to deliver an experience that is both moving and involving on every level. Green must be commended for his assurance in delivering so strong an inaugural feature, which, at just over ninety minutes, feels perfectly paced and unforced in the delivery of its message. Early on, Manny rattles off the title of his partner’s college essay, which seems significant but proves too wordy to decipher. This is the film’s only noticeable rum note.
Though more measured and softly spoken than the likes of Spike Lee, there is still infectious anger in Green’s voice – and rightly so. Yet, there is a vestige of hope too. Generation by generation brings something new to the table, which one day will be shared equally. Monsters and Men is a wonderfully thoughtful film indeed.