Monsters and Men

I kept getting email invites to screenings of this from Drake. Yes, the rapper. He used to call me on my cell phone, but now I just get emails…

He’s involved in producing this hard-hitting, relevant, gripping Brooklyn race drama that starts with John David Washington singing Al Green’s Let’s Stay Together as he drives around happily listening to the radio until he’s pulled over by a white cop.

Turn out, John David is also a cop, off duty, but he’s pulled over anyway, a foreshadowing of racial tensions on the streets to come. Sure enough, our next main character Manny is introduced – played by Anthony Ramos, the young actor who recently played the Spike Lee role in that director’s update of She’s Gotta Have It. Echoes of Do The Right Thing are what ring out now.

The giant guy nicknamed Big D who hangs out at the corner store – he might be dealing drugs but we only see him handing out single cigarettes – gets into a fracas with the police who shoot him dead in the minor struggle. Manny films it all on his phone. Should he post it online?

Of course he does, but the cops come after him and arrest him on trumped up charges. I must admit I didn’t quite get this part, why Manny should be detained for so long. I like Anthony Ramos (he’s in A Star is Born, too) and I missed him when he left the film.

We flip back to John David, who’s of course a cop in Blackkklansman too. Here he doesn’t know if he should voice his own feelings about the cop who shot Big D – are his loyalties with the police or with the black folks being victimised on the streets –  and fudges his way through the Internal Affairs interview.

One night, he sees a kid being searched by a couple of white cops and drives on by.

The film now follows this kid – Zyrick, played by Kelvin Harrison Jr – and it turns out the cops missed his little bag of weed in the search. When he gets home, he flushes it away and faces his Dad. This kid’s a baseball hopeful with a big trial coming up. A conviction for possession would have ruined all their lives. 

Zyrick meets an attractive girl who’s an activist and is organising a demo against the killing of Big D. Against his father’s wishes, but to impress the girl and represent his people, Zyrick feels he must sneak out to attend the demo the night before his big baseball try-out and you just know that’s not going to go off peacefully.

Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green with a calm, measured approach but packing in a lot of soul, this is clearly a direct and thoughtful response to Black Lives Matter, looking at how this everyday injustice affects the lives of three men in the neighbourhood, and how they feel morally obliged to re-act.

If the three storylines don’t quite connect and each one leaves you wanting a bit more, that’s just how it is, because overall the film puts us the viewer in the same position – what should we do? Just sitting there and watching feels like a betrayal. It’s a film of dignity more than righteous anger, and frustrating those norms is its defining achievement.