We often forget that as human beings we are interconnected. No one has a singular experience, good or bad that doesn’t directly affect those closest to them. With everything that is happening in society today, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and isolated. The perils of the world seem to weigh us all down, and we fail to be vulnerable and find comfort in others. Reinaldo Marcus Green’s extraordinary feature film debut Monsters and Men examines what it means to be a person of color in these perilous times and how deeply haunted and affected we all are by acts of violence and police brutality.
Told in a triptych of stories that are connected but don’t necessarily overlap, Green captures the intricacies of New York City and Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn in a way that is reminiscent to Spike Lee’s love letters to his hometown. However, Green is not trying to pay homage; he’s intent on taking a stand.
The first part of the film follows Manny (Hamilton alum Anthony Ramos), a young father with major life changes on the horizon. Coming home one evening, he records the death of his good friend Darius Larson on his cell phone. It’s a ripped-from-the-headlines scenario, nearly identical to the 2014 death of Eric Garner. Big D, as he was known around the way, was a staple in the community. He was known for selling loose squares outside of the bodega and giving the kids who rode by a dollar here and there. Traumatized by Big D’s death and tormented by the NYPD who threaten him to keep quiet, Manny must decide what to do, a decision that could greatly alter not just his life but the life of his pregnant girlfriend and young daughter.
Though we’re led into Manny’s life first, Monsters and Men opens with Dennis (John David Washington, son of Denzel), a Black cop who seems increasingly uncomfortable with his occupation. Always on edge, Dennis has distanced himself from his fellow officers and his emotions, he only allows himself to be soft in the presence of his wife, Michelle played by Nicole Beharie. Dennis’ unease but unwillingness to step away from his job is something that neither he nor the audience can articulate. On the one hand he seems determined to be a positive influence in the community, and on the other hand, he seems almost ashamed. It's a conundrum that many cops of color must find themselves in.
The final story in Monsters and Men follows a young baseball phenom on the cusp of breaking through to the major leagues. Raised by a stoic but present father, Mudbound’s Rob Morgan, Zee’s (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) destiny is right in front him. However, the video recording of Big D’s death and a terrifying stop and frisk by the police makes him shift focus in the last moment. Zee’s story is perhaps the most poignant. The youngest of the men, it's obvious that police terror and institutionalized racism has seeped down into our youth, propelling them to act in some way, even if they don’t know exactly what to do or how to verbalize their feelings.
One of the most profound moments in the film is when Manny and Dennis’ paths cross. Wrongfully arrested for a crime he did not commit, Manny peers helplessly into a two-way mirror as Dennis gazes back at him warily, donning a full police uniform. The film forces the men and the audience to answer questions about who we are and how that differs from the people we hope to become.
Films about police violence and Black death, are uncomfortable, and often seem to just capitalize on our current times instead of saying anything. Green asks his audience to considers questions about the culpability of police officers as a whole, Black identity, and the consequences that come when you speak up in a system that is determined to silence you. Superbly acted and impactful, Monsters and Men is a film about having the difficult conversations even when the answers to our questions might not be readily available.
Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival, Jan. 19, 2018.
Aramide A Tinubu is a film critic and entertainment writer. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her Master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, read her blog at: www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami