Reinaldo Marcus Green’s outstanding feature debut Monsters and Men is so heartfelt it hurts.
Black Lives Matterby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Monsters and Men has one of the best pre-title sequences I’ve seen. A good-looking black man is driving law-abidingly along daytime Brooklyn streets, singing happily to Al Green. Then, sirens and flashing lights behind him, and the New York cops pull him over. The ominous background soundtrack alerts us to all those news items about black men who’ve in effect been culled by gun-happy police for the crime of ‘driving while black”. He and we know that this encounter could have fatal consequences for him. It’s unpredictable.
This urgent and desperate feature tells three stories. Latino Manny (Anthony Ramos), a loving family man, about to start a job as a receptionist in an upscale Manhattan office building, records on his mobile phone the unprovoked shooting by cops of a popular neighbourhood shopkeeper, Big D (Samel Edwards) outside his shop. This again recalls the infamous killing of Eric Garner in 2014 when restrained by police on the sidewalk. He knows if he makes it public he puts everything he has at risk. It’s a moral struggle.
The narrative baton passes seamlessly to Dennis, a black cop (John David Washington}, up for promotion, and the discrimination he receives and is silent witness to. He’s another family man, doing a good job. But as an insider, he knows about police brutality to black people, but what action should he take?
And again, naturally, we go to the third story. Young Zyrick (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is a promising baseball player, about to get his big break with a sports scholarship to college. He’s stopped by police for walking home alone at night after practice. Again, the fear builds up in him and us. All he can do is obey and accept and hope not to provoke. Like Tryvon Martin, just being black and on the street means terrifying vulnerability. And the killing of Big D is still resonating in the neighbourhood and with Zyrick.
The injustice of some sequences, shot naturalistically throughout and feeling almost too true to life, is heart-rending. There are a couple of clunky scenes: one where a dinner guest angrily interrogates Dennis and another with Zyrick and his subservient father (Rob Morgan), also a cop. But overall it’s an angry but compassionate movie that tries to present both sides of an intolerable situation where institutional oppression creates activists out of ordinary people that uses the triptych device to telling effect.
Monsters and Men is released on 18 January 2019 in cinemas in the UK and on digital.