Filmmaker Reinaldo Marcus Green knows how to get your attention. In the first moments of his contemporary drama, Monsters and Men, a black man is driving down a city street, punching absently at his car radio. When Al Green’s dreamy, “Let’s Stay Together” comes up, the driver grins, relaxes and starts singing along (as do most of us in the audience—in our heads, anyway). We’re with this guy 100 percent.
But the mood alters drastically when a police cruiser shows up out the rear window. The driver braces himself, but while he remains courteous and cool as he’s pulled over, the audience goes into panic mode. Nothing suggests the driver is some kind of criminal. Is this guy we already identify with going to become another tragic statistic in the ongoing war between law enforcement and people of color—whose casualties we read about in the paper almost every day?
Fortunately, this encounter has a peaceful resolution, the surprise of which won’t be revealed here. But it sets up the edgy tone of Green’s urban drama, where something horrible might happen to anyone at any moment, for no good reason. Green’s skill is involving us deeply in the lives of three bystanders caught in the metaphorical crossfire. The more we care about them, the more we agonize over their fates in Green’s compelling tale of choices and consequences in the Black Lives Matter era.
Set in the Bed-Stuy neighborhood of Brooklyn, the movie introduces Manny Ortega (an excellent Anthony Ramos), who lives with his girlfriend and their toddler daughter in his mom’s apartment. Motivated to better himself to support his family, Manny has just started a new job at the reception desk of a large corporation. But one night, he and his friends stumble upon a tense encounter between police and an unarmed man; Manny switches his phone to video mode just as things turn violent.
What should he do? Put himself and his family at risk by making the video public, or deal with the guilt of staying silent? Meanwhile, a black police officer named Dennis (John David Washington from BlacKkKlansman, in a performance of guarded restraint), also a devoted husband with a young child, has to decide how to respond during an internal police investigation into the nature of the officer who did the shooting—whose reputation within the department is already dubious.
The third principal observer is Zyric (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a high school baseball phenom on the brink of being signed to the majors. His proud single dad is also a cop, who urgently wants his son to grasp his opportunity to get out of the neighborhood. But Zyric must weigh the option of getting involved in his community—the trials of living as a person of color—even if it jeopardizes his ticket out.
When Zyric is first introduced—a young man in a hoodie walking home from practice, pulled over by the cops—viewers think at first that it’s Manny, who we have seen pulled over by the police in much the same way in an earlier scene. This is the essence of racial profiling, in which the viewer is invited to participate—do young men of color in hoodies all look alike to the cops? Yet we also see Dennis, his white female partner and two other beat cops join a friendly, impromptu game on a neighborhood basketball court with local youths—putting tribal antagonisms on hold for a few minutes.
The brilliant Blindspotting, from earlier this year, also featured the shooting of a black man by police as a key plot element. That movie, set in Oakland, also added hip-hop poetry, blistering dark humor, and unresolved racial tensions between its two protagonists into its volatile mix. While not quite as complex as its predecessor, Green’s movie urges us to delve beneath the headlines and slogans and face the nature of injustice in our dysfunctional society.
MONSTERS AND MEN
*** (out of four)
With John David Washington, Anthony Ramos, and Kelvin Harrison Jr. Written and directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green. A Neon release. Rated R. 95 minutes.