Today was the world premiere of the latest feature by filmmaker Reinaldo Marcus Green called Monsters and Men. As our social climate has heightened with more recorded incidents of state-sanctioned police violence streaming down our Twitter timelines and Facebook posts, many of the films here at Sundance, are reflecting law enforcement’s attitudes towards people of color. Last night, the Daveed Diggs film Blindspotting premiered which also sheds some social commentary on police brutality in a very stylized kind of way.
Monsters and Men takes on a tone that leaves the viewer wondering where do we go from here when the lives of men, women, and children are impacted by police terrorism in their respective communities?
One night, in front of a bodega in Brooklyn’s Bed–Stuy neighborhood, Manny Ortega witnesses, and records a white police officer wrongfully gun down an unarmed Black man who’s known for selling loosies to the local residents. A direct parallel and nod to the Eric Garner case, Manny films the incident on his phone. However, he’s faced with a dilemma: release the video and bring unwanted exposure to himself and his family, or keep the video private and be complicit in the injustice?
The movie meanders and later focuses on different protagonists and at times, can become tonally jarring since we’re switching up characters. The first part focuses on Manny Ortega’s narrative (Anthony Ramos) where we see his how his life is impacted after he films the video of a police shooting. We see how it affects his family, including his pregnant girlfriend (Jasmine Cephas Jones) and the day-to-day post-traumatic stress of dealing with this lethal brand of law enforcement. We then move onto Officer Dennis Williams’ (John David Washington), a Black cop who has to deal with the heavy dichotomy of serving and protecting a community that at times— resent the blue uniform he’s wearing—and also being antagonized by his fellow cops when he’s not wearing that same blue uniform. In one scene, Williams explains to his white female partner (Cara Buono), how he’s been pulled over six times by the police and it’s only June. Officer Williams discusses candidly with his wife (Nichole Beharie) about his experiences and tries to just balance a healthy home life with the stress of being a working cop. The last third of the film focuses in on Zee (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.), a baseball athlete with a promising future and a shot at the major leagues. However, when Zee himself is racially profiled by cops one night, he leans towards doing more community activism and works closely with fellow activist Zoe (Chanté Adams). His father (Rob Morgan) encourages him to focus on the bigger picture—his athletic opportunity—rather than the perpetual problems within their community which he believes will always be there long after he leaves the neighborhood.
What I found to be compelling about this film was the focus on these three narratives and how filmmaker Reinaldo Marcus Green narrows in on how one act of police violence can create a toxic domino effect and disintegrate an entire community. Filmmaker Reinaldo Marcus Green took cues from real events that wove into this story such as the Eric Garner incident and the Walter Scott case.
During the Q&A for the film which premiered this week at Sundance, actor Anthony Ramos shared a story of how he was handcuffed in Brooklyn, humiliated by the cops and was surrounded by Black and Latin members of the community witnessing the incident. When he questioned the officer as to why he was handcuffed, he told the audience in this powerful story, that the cop told him he did it to teach him a “lesson”. Ramos explicitly stated, “he couldn’t have talked to me man-to-man and tell me the lesson?” To which he ended the story by saying his personal experience is exactly why he decided to do this film.
Monsters and Men is a tough watch, but also a film that explores the aftermath, but doesn’t necessarily focus in on solving the problem. However, I’m not certain that filmmaker Reinaldo Marcus Green wants us to see how police violence should be fixed, but instead see its influence on people’s psyche and how it can even at times, compromise the decisions people make that have an impact on their future. The pacing of the film for me was a bit slower than I would have wanted, and it is pretty clear the director was trying to unpack as much as he could from each protagonist and string together their parallels to carve out this story—I just would have preferred that the storytelling could quickly get to the point. Aside from that, this film comes with some compelling performances especially from Anthony Ramos and John David Washington who are the first two central characters in the story.
This is a movie that intentionally is meant for audiences to think about the aftermath of a police shooting rather than the incident. I am curious to know if this film is meant more for white people to think about these consequences as opposed to people of color who live with these experiences every day. Reinaldo Marcus Green explored this material before in his short film Stop and included moments from that film into Monsters and Men. This film is meant for you to leave with your own assessment of state-sanctioned violence and it doesn’t try to do the work of figuring that out for you—I appreciated that. I think overall, this film will resonate more with certain audiences over others in large part because of the kind of audience this film is telling its story to.
Monsters and Men 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.
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Jamie Broadnax is the creator of the online community for Black women called Black Girl Nerds. Jamie has appeared on MSNBC's The Melissa Harris-Perry Show and The Grio's Top 100. Her Twitter personality has been recognized by Shonda Rhimes as one of her favorites to follow. She's the primary film critic for BGN and is a member of the Broadcast Film Critic Association