Based on the popular young adult novel written by Walter Dean Myers, Monster is a film that delivers a hard-hitting look at how our American justice system treats people of color. Filmmaker Anthony Mandler makes his directorial debut in this film which received a standing ovation during the premiere at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.
Steve Harmon (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is 17-year old aspiring filmmaker and honor student. However, due to Harmon’s insecure nature, he finds himself caught up in an unfortunate circumstance as a lookout during a potential robbery. Feeling pressured and scared, he reluctantly agrees but when the robbery goes awry and an innocent man is shot and killed, Steve’s life is changed dramatically.
Steve is shortly arrested by law enforcement as a co-conspirator in this homicide and is labeled a “monster”. The story of a Black young man accused of a crime he didn’t commit and immediately being considered someone who simply “fits the description” of a killer based on how he looks is unfortunately nothing new. However, there is something about this film that makes you think about the countless names and faces of young Black youth accused of a crime they didn’t commit simply because they were at the wrong place at the wrong time. I personally started thinking about my brother, who wears the hoodie and sadly could find himself in the same position as Steve simply because he’s a Black male.
The assumption of guilt before innocence is the recurring theme of this story and Monster does a great job of building enough character development in Steve Harmon, through intercutting scenes of his personal photography to scrutinizing the moments leading up to his arrest. One thing that I noticed while watching this, is how the story shifts to where one moment you look at Steve Harmon and know for certain he is 100% innocent and then in another moment you begin to sense some doubt. It’s an interesting portrait about the ability to use limited information from a very narrow period of experience and inevitably come to your own conclusion.
Kelvin Harrison Jr. who actually has three films at Sundance, Monster, Assassination Nation, and Monsters and Men delivers an incredibly powerful and convincing performance which will resonate with you long after the film ends. Kelvin Harrison Jr. is definitely the one to watch this awards season for strong dramatic performances. Is the plot to Monster ground-breaking material? No. However, it’s not the story that moves you, it’s the character development and performances. The film had a few moments where it began to lag, and a large part of the setting for Monster takes place inside of a courtroom.
Actors Jennifer Hudson and Jeffrey Wright, who play the parents of Steve Harmon, also provide an exceptional supportive performance fighting for their son’s future. We also see flashback moments of Steve with his parents that indicate that their bond and relationship is healthy and that there would be no reason as to why Steve would resort to such violence due to his upbringing. There are also additional flashback scenes showing Steve in class being taught by Mr. Leroy Sawicki played by actor Tim Blake Nelson.
Monster is a great character study and in-depth look at how we perceive guilt and innocence. The film is currently screening at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.
BGN is a proud partner with Pop Culture Collaborative for the 2018 Sundance Festival.
The Pop Culture Collaborative is a 5-year, $25 million fund organized by leading philanthropies to support artists and activists working at the intersection of entertainment and social change.