In New York City, Dennis (John David Washington) is driving home from work, singing along to Al Green on the radio, when the familiar flash of lights and bleep of siren behind his car occurs and he is pulled over by the police. He makes sure his gun is concealed under his shirt as the cop appears at the window and asks for his license, which he gives him, whereupon the cop realises this black man he has stopped is a fellow police officer and he is allowed to go on his way. It wouldn’t be so bad if this were an occasional event, but it has happened to him many times, and he is not sure how he should feel about it, being loyal to the police and all. Then a shooting takes place - a police shooting.
Monsters and Men was the debut feature from Reinaldo Marcus Green after a string of shorts he had directed, and a television series, so he was not without experience coming into this and had something to say. The "Black Lives Matter" issue, where minorities in the United States were protesting against police brutality and even shootings against black people, usually men, had evidently been in the headlines when he was drafting his screenplay, as this was an examination of that from some, but not all, sides of the debate, as the police were not really given a chance to air their views, and you assume the audience for this would not be interested in hearing them.
But there were two films Green had obviously seen recent to writing his script, both of which informed the structure, tone and even individual scenes that were replicated here. They were Moonlight, which had been a historic Oscar-winner as far as African-American cinema goes, and the lesser known but still relevant Fruitvale Station, a work that fictionalised a real-life case to make much the same points this film was a few years later. As it was, they were not the worst influences for a black director in America to have, but unfortunately for Green another movie had erupted onto the scene from probably the most famous director of colour around, Spike Lee and BlacKkKlansman.
Not that that vital effort had rendered Monsters and Men irrelevant, but since Lee had assuredly created something original with race in mind, to see a film that was a follower rather than a leader so soon afterwards was a little disappointing. The Moonlight structure was to take three black actors and have them play out their third of the plot, though here they were not essaying the same character at different stages, they were individuals caught up in the controversy around a well-liked member of their community who had been gunned down after resisting arrest. The cop who did the shooting already, as we find out, had a record of poor discipline, but appears to get away with this scot free, and at the very least we can regard his actions as an overreaction, at worst a groundless murder.
One young man, Manny (Anthony Ramos), has captured this incident on his cameraphone, and begins to feel paranoid that the cops are trying to trap him to stop him causing trouble with the clip, which seems to be justified by what happens. But the protests are crystallising around the killing, and Dennis is finding it increasingly difficult to stick up for the force when they do look to be in the wrong. Lastly, a promising teen baseball player, who has a chance to turn professional if he keeps his head down and behaves, is troubled by the problems in his community and wants to take a stand, but will he jeopardise his future career by doing so? All very emotive, but too often Green invited us to make up our own minds as the main three were frustratingly blank, like a canvas to bring your politics to, so when they did pipe up it was unfortunately contrived. You had to chalk this up as a well-meaning, nice try, but its black cinema contemporaries across the world were producing more exciting works. Music by Kris Bowers.
[No extras on the Lionsgate DVD, but the image and sound are fine.]