Reinaldo Marcus Green’s film Monsters and Men is part of an interesting moment in popular culture. It’s one of four films this year to address the relationship between law enforcement and people of color. It’s also one of two movies playing at this year's Toronto International Film Festival that deal directly with Black Lives Matter and the killing of black men at the hands of police officers.
Green’s film distinguishes itself by taking a multifaceted approach to the subject matter, showing three different perspectives on the same event: the killing of Big D, a well-liked neighborhood man, by police. The first is Manny (Anthony Ramos) who captures footage of the incident on his phone. The second is Dennis (John David Washington), a black police officer in the neighborhood torn between the discrimination he faces as a black man and his devotion to upholding law and order. The third is Zyric (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.), a high school student and aspiring baseball player galvanized into political action after Big D’s death and after a close call with the same cops involved in the shooting.
In each of the three separate but overlapping narratives, the characters are presented with a choice: either stand by their principles and risk their lives, jobs, or futures by speaking up or take the safe route and keep their heads down, all the while knowing that they could have acted. But Green also aspires to create a dialogue, particularly through the story of Washington’s Dennis, who feels called to be a police officer but at the same time is keenly aware of the brokenness of the system he is a part of. He knows this from experience. The first scene of the film shows Dennis while undercover being pulled over and questioned by two fellow cops who don’t recognize him.
The ideas the film explores are worthy, but the execution is disappointing. Monsters and Men feels unfinished. The three stories each transition at the moment they start to get dramatically interesting, cutting the film’s dramatic possibilities off at the knees. The plots are never returned to, nor do any of the characters directly interact, which not only removes any hope of resolution, but also limits the dialogue Green engages his audience in. The only conversation about warring points of view appears in a scene between Dennis, his wife, and their dinner guests. The film avoids Dennis’ direct interaction with Ramos’ Manny — the character whose conflict with Dennis is the most direct and thematically pertinent — entirely.
The film’s most complete narrative is Harrison’s Zyric, the high school baseball player who risks his bright athletic future by becoming politically involved. His story packs an emotional wallop. The stakes for his character are clear and Harrison does a great job of showing the journey of a young man who realizes he’s literally in a fight for his own life. However, of the three stories presented, this is the one plot that feels like it doesn’t belong. Zyric is only tangentially connected to the film’s inciting incident and never directly interacts with either Dennis or Manny, both of whom are more connected to Big D’s shooting.
Monsters and Men does make some good points about the complexity of the relationship between people of color and the law. It also does the important job of recognizing that this is an ongoing conversation made up of individual stories that come together to affect systemic change. However, those points are never in direct dialogue with each other, but instead are held at a distance that makes them less effective. The film contains the start of an important conversation, but the credits roll on an incomplete thought.