Maybe some day the world won’t need movies like “Monsters and Men,” which take the issue of police brutality as their subject and focus on little else. Simultaneously subtle and on-the-nose, this original yet under-cooked examination of such a pressing issue centers on three characters — an eyewitness who captured it all on his cell phone, an African-American police officer routinely confronted by racism on the job, and a local high school student who’s transformed from passive bystander to activist by the events — who serve as the prismatic lens by which first-time director Reinaldo Marcus Green considers the myriad ramifications of such an event.
Structured in an unusual (and ultimately unsatisfying) “La Ronde”-like format, whose focus shifts from one protagonist to the next, spending roughly half an hour with each without resolving any of their individual stories along the way, “Monsters and Men” stands apart from such police-shooting melodramas as Charles Burnett’s “The Glass Shield” or last year’s “Detroit.” Whereas those movies veer toward outrage and indignation, Green (brother of “Gun Hill Road” director Rashaad Ernesto Green) attempts a more soft-spoken, empathy-driven approach in hope that audiences who have previously reached their own conclusions will consider other sides of the picture.
Despite a strong cast that includes two “Hamilton” vets and the star of Spike Lee’s upcoming “Black Klansman,” Green directs his ensemble in such a way that works against the actors’ natural charisma. The intent, no doubt, was to reflect the way circumstances seem to constipate his three central characters from acting on their normal impulses (in every case, to speak out against police brutality would be to endanger their families and future prospects), though too much of what they’re feeling remains bottled up inside, while a sparsity of music and other cinematic cues fail to suggest what goes unsaid. As such, their introspective crises of conscience can be more confusing than illuminating (as when the cop studies a photo of his wife and child stashed inside his hat: did he put it there, or are his fellow officers sending him a threatening message?).
The film’s strongest scene is its first one, in which a black man (John David Washington) singing along with his car radio is pulled over by a white NYPD officer for no apparent reason. Though we know almost nothing about the driver, the tension is palpable because we live in a country where police have the right to shoot and kill unarmed citizens (albeit under limited circumstances) — and because he happens to be armed. As it turns out, Washington’s character is an undercover cop, and this is the sixth time he has been pulled over in as many months, which says a lot about the state of profiling in his Bed-Stuy neighborhood.
It’s been more than a quarter-century since an amateur videotape of the Rodney King beating transformed the way Americans understand the unhealthy dynamic between police officers and black suspects. Since then, countless news stories and a small handful of fictional films have turned tragedy into cliché, to the extent that the shooting that occurs in “Monsters and Men” can happen off-screen, and yet, audiences should have no trouble picturing exactly what happens in their heads.
Sadly, this is the new normal, and the more mainstream (white) audiences are made to confront it, the more likely they are to realize that whereas they go through life at the top of the food chain, that’s not at all how people of color experience things. Each time a black male walks out the door, it’s like stepping into a world where fearsome dinosaurs still walk the earth: If an officaurus should cross your path, stand very still, try to remain calm, and do whatever it asks, because you never know how it might react.
In “Monsters and Men,” it’s the monsters who carry guns, while the ordinary men must learn to coexist. That’s not to say every cop in the movie is a trigger-happy predator just looking to use his weapons, but Green demonstrates how the system not only protects the police when they overstep their bounds but it can silence or suspend any who dare speak out against its worst offenders.
That’s the premise of the film’s first two segments, focused on Bed-Stuy resident Manny Ortega (Anthony Ramos), who happened to catch the shooting on camera, and officer Dennis Williams (Washington), who’s conflicted enough to consider testifying against the cop responsible.
Manny’s chapter is fraught with problems, from the way he films the scene (by picking a fight with one of the cops, he may actually have contributed to the death of his friend Big D) to the implication that police may have broken into his apartment searching for the video. No sooner has he posted it to YouTube than the next day’s New York Daily News has the story on its front page, and the next thing Manny knows, he’s being picked up by two strong-arm cops and hauled in on some trumped-up charge — and so he exits the film, leaving his pregnant girlfriend (Jasmine Cephas Jones) to raise their daughter on her own.
Each time Green passes the narrative baton, he does so through a moment of extended eye-contact, which in this first case, happens with a one-way mirror separating Manny from officer Williams. The cop has the most to struggle with, since the movie wants to give consideration to the officers’ perspective, and yet, Green clearly doesn’t share the opinion that police should have the right to shoot someone resisting arrest (though many in America do, echoed by a bunch of jerky white jocks overheard in a later locker-room scene).
In scene after scene, Williams is forced to choose where his allegiances lie, expressing his misgivings to his partner one moment, then defending the police when a longtime friend grills him about the incident over dinner. His most important decision will be what he says to the federal investigator looking into the case from within, but before that can be fully resolved, Green shows Williams staring down Zyrick (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a high school athlete being frisked by two of the cops who’d been present at the shooting.
Zyrick is just days away from a major college recruiting opportunity, from which he could potentially be drafted on a full baseball scholarship, when the incident pushes him toward getting politically involved. Or does it? Zyrick doesn’t say anything when walking by the crime scene, where protestors now gather on the corner, but shouts a quick word to Zoe (Chanté Adams), the pretty classmate he sees putting up fliers around the neighborhood. Whether he gets involved because of the cause or simply to impress her, the choice will likely change his future completely.
If “Monsters and Men” seems to raise more questions than it answers, that’s true, although too many involve an overall lack of clarity. Mixing “gritty” handheld camerawork with an almost zen-like kind of restraint, Green’s approach is frustratingly thin on the kind of specifics that make for rich drama, leaving audiences to fill in the gaps. Some will find that easier than others, particularly if such incidents resonate in any way close to their own experience, but for the people Green most hopes to engage, he hasn’t given them quite enough to work with.