Watching Reinaldo Marcus Green’s debut feature “Monsters and Men,” about three different persons of color in Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood, one senses that this is the kind of serious, small-bore drama that Hollywood stopped caring about a while ago; it’s about real people in unglamorous situations, making do and struggling to move forward when they find themselves at a crossroads.
But when you take into account Green’s catalytic, section-binding incident — the suspicious killing of a black man at the hands of cops — you realize that this is the kind of movie Hollywood needs to be making. Though “Monsters and Men” isn’t the most fully realized work, its innate intelligence and matter-of-fact sensitivity are the kinds of storytelling assets we need more of, especially when the fabric of life for many continues to fray and tear in ways that demand a larger societal reassessing.
That’s certainly the vibe Green achieves in his opening scene, in which a black man (John David Washington, “BlacKkKlansman”) behind the wheel of a car, singing along to Al Green, is stopped by a police cruiser. Nothing happens — the driver, later one of our three protagonists, is a cop, who shows his badge — but was it really nothing? The no-frills, real-time nature of this quietly tense opener, and the cool resolve on Washington’s face, let us know that this kind of incident is always a case of a song interrupted, a personal space invaded, progress halted.
From there, we meet Manny (Anthony Ramos, “A Star Is Born”), a reformed young man applying for a security job while he lives with his mother, girlfriend, and daughter. A regular at the corner bodega, he’s hanging with friends one night when cops swarm, focusing on community fixture Darius (Samel Edwards). Manny begins recording with his phone, and within seconds, Darius is dead.
That Green holds his camera on Manny and not Darius’s dying mere yards away is a directorial choice that is likely to fluster some — later, when Manny posts the video online, we don’t even get an uninterrupted viewing of the footage — but it’s an understandable decision as the rest of the movie plays out. However such incidents are seen, assessed, and dealt with (or not), a broken, racist, ass-covering system is going to do what it does anyway to squelch its impact.
As might be expected, Manny’s decision to go viral with Darius’ fate makes him a target for intimidation and questioning by cops, save Washington’s character Dennis, whose story we then follow after he locks eyes with Manny through a one-way mirror at the station. Dennis finds himself in the uncomfortable position of a black man who knows discrimination (the aforementioned opening scene) yet feels the need to defend the actions of his colleagues by way of the broader context of how dangerous his job is.
Washington’s performance is the film’s best, magnetically capturing Dennis’ hawklike solitude, and the tension inside someone who is careful of his every step, physically and verbally. (Which, incidentally, is praise you could readily apply to his equally great minority-lawman-amongst-whites turn in “BlacKkKlansman.”)
The third story, also signaled by a meeting of eyes from a chance encounter, belongs to high schooler Zyrick (Kelvin Harrison, Jr., “Assassination Nation”), a studious baseball phenom torn between the expected rigor of not rocking any boat that would mar his chance of landing a sports scholarship, and a growing need to be an outspoken voice in the wake of the shooting. Zyrick’s is the most schematically engineered dilemma in Green’s screenplay, but one that nevertheless carries a ripped-from-the-headlines resonance in light of today’s harsh spotlight on politicized athletes.
Green made a handful of short films prior to “Monsters and Men,” and if there’s a nagging incompleteness to the movie, it’s because Green, by working with a triptych, is still thinking in a truncated-tale mindset. With all three of the stories, you sense the momentum of a thorny narrative, rich in personal struggle and consequence, coming to a halt just when you’d like them to take the next step dramatically. (To leave Manny when he’s being interrogated seems almost cruel.)
Visually, however, “Monsters and Men” benefits from some fine cinematography by Patrick Scola (“Southside With You”), built around muted, shadowy evocations of loneliness and self-assessment across the three characters’ storylines. Green and Scola are also effective at framing their leads in ways that give us the internal dialogue — when Zyrick watches the video of Darius’ killing, you know he’s thinking, “That could be me someday” — without it having to be spoken aloud. That being said, Green still occasionally succumbs to the obvious scripted line, but there’s enough of an observant realism to these lives that the on-the-nose moments aren’t that distracting.
Besides, “Monsters and Men” wants you to be reminded of Eric Garner and Colin Kaepernick, but in a way that pushes you to think about your own sense of what’s fair, what’s not, what’s true, and what’s necessary. Green’s film lies somewhere between full-throttle drama and issue-driven mood piece. That may not be enough for some moviegoers, but it’s still a worthy conversation starter.