TIFF Review: ‘Monsters and Men’ offers a look at lives affected by police violence

 
 

Editor’s Note: Vanyaland’s Nick Johnston is north of the border all week long for the Toronto International Film Festival; click here for our continued coverage from the fest and also check out our official preview.

The pre-title sequence at the start of Reinaldo Marcus Green’s Monsters and Men documents what is an all too-ordinary encounter in the life of one of its main characters, Dennis (John David Washington). He’s interrupted from the bliss of finding Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” on the radio while driving to work by flashing lights in his rear-view. He tenses up a bit, both out of frustration and unease. The officer comes to his window and demands his license and registration, and Dennis shows the beat cop his badge. Even those working in the system aren’t immune to its casual injustices, and Monsters and Men seeks to explore the larger effects that an officer-involved shooting has on a community (namely, Bed-Stuy) by examining the havoc it wreaks on three individuals. It’s a solid, if shaggy and vague, study of police violence, perhaps best enjoyed by those who didn’t find Blindspotting appealing.

The first of those characters, a charming security guard named Manny (Anthony Ramos), is partying with friends when he notices a group of cops swarming his pal Darius (Christopher Jordan Wallace), whom he buys loosies for his mother from on a daily basis, outside of the bodega where he hangs out and holds court. Seeing the number of police present — and sensing the potential for the havoc that brings — he starts recording the cops on his cell phone when the worst happens: One of the officers guns down Darius where he stands.

In the aftermath, Manny is faced with a dilemma: Either share what he knows with the world and attempt to right a wrong while also putting his small family in danger, or stay silent in the face of increasing police intimidation. He chooses to do the right thing, and he suffers the terrible consequences as a result. Manny’s story is by far the most interesting of the three, and Green’s skillfully able to articulate his emotional struggle. You see him care for his wife and child, you feel his fear when he starts to notice the unmarked police cars hanging out in front of his building, and Ramos brings his A-game to the table here.

The second, the aforementioned Dennis, is also struggling with a different kind of paranoia and conflict: Namely, his status as a black cop in a department that is regularly responsible for the “accidental” deaths of men who look just like him. He doesn’t live in the city, and his family and friends have little understand of what his life is actually like on the job. We’re supposed to draw that he’s a good cop from a scene in which he plays basketball with teens from the housing complexes and talks trash just like the kids, and that he’s a good dude based on the fact that he loves his family, but his actions — such as his responses to an IAD investigator looking to the officer who committed the shooting — prove that he’s not in to change things for the good, ultimately, and is just a part of the problem, no matter the ache in his heart that he’s doing the right thing. Washington is almost as solid here as in he is in Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, charming and conflicted as ever, but he’s saddled with writing that’s just trying a bit too hard to provide the requisite “Blue Lives Matter” perspective needed for a complicated drama like this to earn its adjective.

It’s the third segment, which focuses on a young ballplayer named Zyric (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) who becomes politically active after a stop-and-frisk by some corrupt cops nearly lands him in jail, where the film runs a bit out of steam. That’s not Harrison’s fault, nor am I trying to demean the film’s striking and smart portrayal of organized protest, but seeing the seconds tick down on the clock, a sinking feeling set in that we weren’t going to see Manny and Dennis’ stories come to anything close to a resolution. It’s a really odd choice, given how tightly-plotted and organized those two segments were, to suddenly jump to the political awakening of a middle class kid who we haven’t spent any time with for the home stretch.

I get the need to see that third perspective, and these types of ensemble films are normally grouped in threes, but our story remains unfinished, in limbo somewhere in the creative ether. But simply articulating the complicated feelings of urban life, no matter the class or racial line, is enough for Green, and he does well enough with it.

Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus. Featured image courtesy of TIFF.