Review: In ‘Monsters and Men,’ Racism Disrupts a Neighborhood

Starring Anthony Ramos, John David Washington and Kelvin Harris Jr., the politically charged film sparks dialogue around race and politics

The words “black lives matter” are never actually spoken in “Monsters and Men,” but they inform every scene of this ambitious debut feature from the writer and director Reinaldo Marcus Green.

Essentially a conversation in three acts, the movie sequentially follows Manny (Anthony Ramos), a young father in Brooklyn who witnesses a police shooting of an unarmed black man and records the incident on his cellphone; Dennis (John David Washington), an African-American police officer who’s uncomfortably aware of the racism in his squad; and Zyrick (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a high school baseball star drawn to activism after suffering a random stop-and-frisk.

Though focused unwaveringly on police brutality and racial profiling, this determinedly low-key triptych is really about the difficulty of doing the right thing. All three are men of color with loving families and a great deal to lose — an athletic scholarship, a new job, a hard-won promotion — their actions complicated by divided loyalties and, in at least one case, a newly awakened social conscience. Moral and behavioral lapses are slipped quietly into the narrative without remark, giving depth to characters whose stories are so sparse and rushed they risk becoming merely symbolic. Like a distracted news anchor, the movie’s attention shifts from one section to the next with minimal overlap, leaving the men’s fates as unresolved as the issues they dramatize.

Turning black-white conflict into a laudably complex wash of gray, Mr. Green (inspired in part by a conversation he had with a police officer about the 2014 death of Eric Garner) favors reason over outrage. The political heat rises but the movie stays cool, its smooth, smart climax in keeping with its levelheaded tone. Whether in the middle of a protest or a dinner party, Patrick Scola’s camera moves fluidly and evocatively, peering over shoulders like an eavesdropper or shadowing characters from behind. The effect is moody and a little threatening, suggesting a feeling of being tailed that some might find all too familiar.

At times, the narrative’s topicality is almost obtrusive. Aside from the initial killing (whose victim, like Mr. Garner, was selling loose cigarettes outside a convenience store), further recognizable plot points — including the fatal shooting of two police officers and the merging of athletics and peaceful protest — mimic real life so closely that we’re lifted out of the movie and into the news cycle.

It’s left to the actors, then, to keep us close, and not one of them shirks the task, injecting intellectual and emotional nuance that frequently transcends the script. This powerful ensemble makes “Monsters and Men,” while far from a fully-formed conversation, a very fine place to start.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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