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Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, Reinaldo Marcus Green's Monsters and Men is a layered, yet very accessible exploration into police brutality, focusing on its consequences and how it impacts a New York City community.
In the past few years, there has been a surge of American independent films investigating police brutality and racism. Adding to this discussion, Monsters and Men explores how the lives of three black men are affected by the shooting of a young black man stopped by police officers for selling single cigarettes outside a convenience store. This is reminiscent of the shooting of Eric Gardner, whose death in 2013 was captured on a mobile phone and spread widely across social media, sparking mass protest across America.
Coincidentally, Monsters and Men is also set in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, the same neighbourhood as Spike Lee's cult film Do The Right Thing, which three decades earlier had debated the right way for a community or neighbourhood to respond to racial violence when a character dies in a police chokehold. Reinaldo Marcus Green's debut is unafraid of diving into these very difficult questions, but is a distinctively sober film, that focuses more on the aftermath of police brutality and how racism seeps into the daily lives of its three characters in more subtle ways.
Divided into three chapters, the film follows Manny, a young father who filmed the incident and must decide if sharing the video will bring justice or trouble to him and his family; police officer Dennis Williams, who is up for a promotion, but battles with his complicity; and Zyrick, a talented high-school baseball player whose growing interest in activism could jeopardise a scholarship and his bright future. Each character is rendered with compassion and warmth by the script and its lead actors, which makes their stories feel particularly authentic and nuanced, in similar ways to Fruitvale Station, an affecting drama which follows the last 24 hours in the life of Oscar Grant, who was killed by a police officer in 2009.
Although the fatal shooting echoes throughout the narrative, the film plays close attention to the casual prejudice experienced by each of its leads. In a daunting scene at the start of the film, officer Williams is cheerfully singing in his car off-duty when he is stopped by a white police officer for seemingly nothing at all; a close-up on Williams' face suggests that this is not a rare occurrence. A quieter moment of discrimination is also shown when a white baseball scout visits Zyrick and his father. The mood of this hopeful scene changes when the scout asks Zyrick about his hobbies in a tone that suggests he presumes negative behaviours from young black people.
The film's unusual narrative structure also means the individual stories intertwine, resulting in further dilemmas. Officer Dennis defends his profession but faces daily discrimination and is aware of his colleagues stopping and searching young men like Manny and Zyrick. Manny is threatened by the police for being a witness to the shooting - could the same (or worse) happen to Zyrick, if he doesn't keep his head down and focus on getting a ticket out of the neighbourhood?
Although Monsters and Men depicts these characters as they work through this overwhelming sense of injustice, it also offers a streak of hope in the form of activism, with characters taking positive actions to question and challenge this entrenched discrimination. Manny puts his freedom on the line when he releases the video so the public can know the truth, while his partner later stands up for him in front of the community when he is taken in by the police. Peaceful protest is also an ongoing thread throughout the film, with community groups gathering daily at the scene of the shooting to draw attention to the innocence of the victim, using chants, signs and even poetry to educate those in the neighbourhood and raise awareness on systematic racism.
The film's final chapter finishes on an inspiring note that offers hope for its youngest character. Zyrick becomes involved in local protest groups, organising with other young people to bring awareness to the shooting and countless others. In this light, the films shares a similar sentiment to The Hate U Give and Step, which portrays young people finding their inner voice and using it to support and protect their communities, as Zyrick stands up for what he believes in even if it could jeopardise the opportunities he has worked so hard for.
Monsters and Men may not provide easy answers, but it is a thoughtful and moving addition to this timely discussion that encourages its audience, whether aware or new to this issue, to unpack and reflect along with its refreshingly complex characters.
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