Sundance 2018: Monsters and Men, by David Bax
One day shy of a year after the inauguration of President Donald Trump, Monsters and Men premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. That’s two days shy, then, of the day the women marched and many of the rest of us joined them. We’ve marched since then too, against the Muslim travel ban, in support of the Dreamers who embody American ideals, even to try to get our supposed business virtuoso president to release his tax returns. Monsters and Men very knowingly takes place in this atmosphere of increased activism but it contemplates a question that someone like me never really has to ask. What does protest mean to those who are truly risking something to do it?
Director Reinaldo Marcus Green’s confident debut feature is incited by the officer-involved shooting death of an unarmed black man on a Brooklyn street corner. But rather than focus on a statistical overview of these all-too-common situations, Green focuses on individuals; three of them, in fact. Monsters and Men is presented as a triptych, a relay of three different stories about three different men of color.
What’s most intriguing is that none of them is directly involved with the shooting. The closest and first character is Manny (Anthony Ramos), a bystander who captured the incident on his phone. The next is a black police officer (John David Washington) in the same precinct as the cop who pulled the trigger. The third is a young man from the neighborhood (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) who didn’t even know the deceased other than to recognize him as a neighbor. These perspectives are not the ones commonly reported on after this kind of event but it’s clear these men are profoundly effected.
Green and cinematographer Patrick Scola (Southside with You) stick mostly to a handheld presentation. But, on closer inspection, certain shots are filmed with a Steadicam. Green appears to reserve these for times when his characters feel most comfortable, confident and in control. It may be Manny playing in the park with his daughter or the cop walking through police station before things go downhill. It says a lot about the situation that these moments are fleeting but, without giving anything away, this tactic makes for a truly triumphant final shot.
Monsters and Men is what we used to call a “social problem film.” It sets itself apart, though, by not dramatizing the issues themselves but rather focusing on the individual fallouts felt by those in the afflicted demographic. The personal is political.