Film Review – Monsters and Men (2019)

It’s only a few minutes into Reinaldo Marcus Green’s debut feature, Monsters And Men, when that feeling of familiarity raises its head. The story’s been on our screens before, but that’s not to lessen its importance. It does, however, pile even more pressure on its director to deliver something that stands apart from its predecessors.

That territory is New York where an unarmed black man is shot dead by white police officers. In the crowd is Manny (Anthony Ramos) who doesn’t just witness the entire incident, but films it on his mobile. After some thought, he posts it online and is arrested on a trumped-up charge. The shooting has already sparked a protest movement and his imprisonment adds to the community’s anger. At the same time, idealistic cop Dennis (John David Washington) sees Manny being questioned and, although he believes in his job, he slowly starts to realise that what’s happening is wrong. And Zyrick (Kelvin Harris Jnr), a talented young baseball player with a bright future ahead of him, sees the footage of the shooting online and decides to become involved in the campaign for justice. It could mean his career never gets off the ground.

The echoes of last year’s The Hate U Give are especially strong in the first of the three stories: the witness making a decision that could affect his life, and that of his family, forever. True life drama Fruitvale Station lingers in the background as well, as does Detroit. Each of the three characters have a lot to lose on a personal level and both Manny and Zyrick are at turning points in their lives: Zyrick is about to try out for the big league baseball teams, while Manny has just landed a new job for the first time after coming out of prison. Do they turn a blind eye and concentrate on themselves or do they do what is, essentially, the right thing?

We all know the answer but, while their individual dilemmas are interesting – especially when cop Dennis finds himself defending the police force to close friends, despite his own doubts – the film is also supposed to be about how such incidents effect the entire community. While we witness the protest and a demonstration towards the end of the film is especially powerful and alarming, there isn’t enough sense of connection between the three stories and their main characters – and when there is some, it’s more tenuous than it should be.

The basic narrative is strong enough, but that lack of cohesion undermines the efforts of a good cast. John David Washington is especially good as the idealistic cop who has to question his beliefs and Rob Morgan (impressive in Mudbound) delivers an excellent turn as Zyrick’s father, a man who’s lived under the white man’s rule all his life and is desperate for his son not to rock the boat in any way, shape or form.

Just about everything in the film has been done and done before – and better – but you can’t fault Green for his guts in tackling an difficult, emotional and deeply important subject and giving it his all. He clearly has, even though he’s overstretched himself. This is no failure. True, he’s not wholly succeeded, but Monsters And Men is an indication of what’s to come from a talented director and his sophomore movie, whatever that turns out to be, could be something to behold.

Freda Cooper | [rating=3]

Drama| Altitude Releasing, 18 January 2019 | Dir. Reinaldo Marcus Green | John David Washington, Anthony Ramos, Kelvin Harris Jnr, Rob Morgan.