2018 proved to be quite the year for John David Washington (if you don’t know by now, yes it’s Denzel’s son). Both BlacKkKlansman and The Old Man & the Gun are set to be in the Oscar running, with the possibility of the actor securing a leading man nomination for Spike Lee's film. Monsters and Men further cements his own credentials, ensuring the need to keep mentioning his father should soon be over (the irony of which is fully realised in this review).
The killing of innocent black men and women in America has dominated the headlines for the past few years (although it would be incredibly naive to think it is a new phenomenon) and films like The Hate U Give, Blindspotting and My Name Is Myeisha are bringing that anger and injustice into the cinema. Reinaldo Marcus Green’s debut film is an incredibly impressive drama that weaves together three different complex perspectives, looking at the current state of race and identity in the country.
Using a carefully composed triptych structure, Green shows us the lives of a young Nuyorican called Manny (Anthony Ramos), black police officer Dennis (Washington) and soon-to-be baseball star Zee (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). Manny is trying to secure work to support his family and witnesses the killing of a local unarmed man by two white plainclothes cops, in an incident that shadows the atrocious killing of Eric Garner back in 2014 by an NYPD officer.
Manny is caught between his growing anger at the way is friend was killed, and fear of posting the video footage online which will see his family put under pressure by the police. Green then moves his attention across to police officer Dennis, who we first meet being stopped for the umpteenth time by a cop car as he drives home. Despite being aware of the prejudice he experiences, his loyalty to the police force heightens tensions at home and with friends. They expect him to be more vocal about the killing of Manny's friend and the general racist brutality his colleagues are renowned for.
Green’s camera remains quietly observant of his characters and we watch the painful moral hurdles they are forced to clear at almost every turn in their lives. If you’re white, the ups are up and the downs are down. For people of colour, the stakes and expectations are constantly raised to keep you aware of the colour of your skin. There are no easy answers in Monsters and Men and Green is realistic enough to know that any decisions made by his characters are arrived at the sacrifice of something almost equally as valuable.
The third, and final, segment of the film is a powerful examination of Zee, a talented young athlete destined for great things in the big leagues. While he’s on the brink of securing a baseball scholarship, he’s also coming of age socially and politically. As he becomes more involved in grass roots activism there is a decision to be made about his future. There is nod of inspiration to the stand taken by Colin Kaepernick as it leads towards a triumphant ending that never cheats to get there, and where we leave each character never feels anything less than fully earned.
All round the performances are strong, although Harrison Jr. really stands out to build on the great work seen in It Comes at Night last year. He looks like a prospect to get excited about over the next few years. Ramos also proves to be a captivating screen presence and shouldn’t be short on work for the foreseeable future, while Washington continues to show why he looks set to become a permanent fixture on our screens for the next few decades. Their work is perfectly complemented by Kris Bowers' ambient score that subtly adds an emotional layer to each of the character's stories.
There is no clear resolution offered for any of these three men, which only makes the film stronger. They are left with their own dilemmas to face up to and it would only undermine their experiences, and of those watching who can directly relate, to make a decision on their behalf. By refusing to neatly wrap up the conclusion and splitting the focus across three characters on a subject matter such as this, it turns Monsters and Men into an extremely bold film that is not only realistic about the real world, but it also understands that cinema doesn't hold the answers.
It’s a film that challenges you to consider your own moral stance, not only in what you would do if put into these scenarios, but also about what you may not be doing right now. Any film that can tackle a subject like this and encourage you to talk about it with nuance is doing a lot of things right. This is a hugely impressive calling card from Green, and one that deserves to be seen by as many people as possible.
Monsters and Men will play in select UK cinemas and on streaming platforms from January 18th.