monster review

Originally published in 1999, Walter Dean Myers’s novel Monster has been a favorite among young-adult readers, using both a third-person screenplay device and first-person diary format to tell the story of honors student Steve Harmon, a black teenager with dreams of becoming a filmmaker, who is arrested and tried for felony murder in New York City after a bodega robbery goes wrong and the owner is killed. Was this kid from a supportive home a part of this crime? Or is he simply guilty of being young, black and on trial when he walks in the courtroom?

Music video veteran and first-time feature director Anthony Mandler has been desperate to bring Monster to the screen for years, and now he’s done so with a cast that includes such heavyweights as Jennifer Ehle, Jeffrey Wright, and Tim Blake Nelson, as well as musicians-turned-actors like Oscar-winner Jennifer Hudson, Nas, and A$AP Rocky (real name Rakim Mayers) as Harmon’s co-defendant. Told in a non-linear fashion, Monster moves from Harmon’s life just before the crime to his time in prison and the eventual trial, all culminating in a look at the actual events surrounding the robbery. Various versions of the truth are told, and Mandler illustrates how a kid who wanted to capture the reality of his neighborhood got caught up in way he could never have imagined or wanted.

Harmon is played by Kelvin Harrison Jr., best known as the son in last year’s It Comes At Night. However, he was also in the Oscar-nominated Mudbound and was in two other Sundance films this year: Assassination Nation and Monsters and Men. Harrison delivers some truly rage-filled inner monologues in Monster that add a depth and level of frustration to both the character and the experience of watching the film.

This interview with Mandler and Harrison took place at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, where Monster debuted. /Film spoke with the two about the process of bringing the novel to the screen and the movie’s fluid definition of “the truth.” Monster has yet to announce a distributor or release date.

How did you find out about this role, and what do you remember reacting to specifically about your character?

Kelvin: Well, I got the script one day, and I remember reading the opening, which has been changed in the movie, but I remember seeing this kid traveling through all these beautiful moments in New York. It was like “This kid’s skateboarding, and he’s at home with his family”—all of these moments that a kid should be doing at 17. But he’s remembering these moments from jail, so he was like, “That’s not me, that’s not me, that’s not me, that’s not me. I’m not in any of those places, because I’m in prison right now.” It made me go, “Wow, this really cool, free-spirited, intellectual kid from Harlem is being stifled and has been robbed of his childhood and his humanity and his identity simply because he was curious and trying to grow up.” That struck a chord with me being young. It doesn’t feel that different if I walk down the street than if Steve walked down the street. That made me go, “I really want to be a part of this, and I feel like I need to tell that story.”

Whenever I see a film set in prison, I always think all that person is thinking about is surviving in prison, and what happens from minute to minute in prison. But this reminded me that some part of that time, he’s thinking about what he’s not doing, what he’s missing out on by being there. Anthony, I have to ask about the Rashomon reference in the film [Harmon’s film professor shows the class Akira Kurosawa’s landmark movie], which got a laugh from a few folks in the audience last night. It’s a weird coincidence that that film has been talked about a lot recently, because of I, Tonya taking a somewhat similar approach to telling different versions of the same story. So, it’s been in the popular culture maybe a little more than it has been…

Anthony: …in the last 40 years [laughs].

Exactly. Were you worried that might have been a little too on the nose?

Anthony: There have been some comments about that, and it’s funny. All of the film stuff is owed to Jim Posney, who was my film teacher in high school. He would subject us to films that were far beyond what we were capable of understanding—Goddard, Truffaut, Antonioni, Kurosawa. The fact is, this issue is so relevant today, and it’s been relevant for so long, sometimes you have to hit people square in the temple with things to make them think about what they’re watching and remind them how easy this is, and that kids need to be spoon fed things sometimes. Yeah, we’re hitting you, “Make your reality, make your reality. Figure out how to get out of this, because you got yourself into it.” Yeah, it could be more subtle, but I’m not affected by that criticism, because it was intentional, and we clearly knew what we were doing.

I thought it was really sweet, because I remember in my first film-history class, the professor showed us The Hidden Fortress, but he also gave us supplemental films to watch, and Rashomon was on the list, and I watched it immediately. It was a huge part of my film upbringing too.

Anthony: I heard [people laughing], and it was bizarre, because first of all, they didn’t know what was coming next. It was strange. At the end of day, the movie played beautifully; we got a standing ovation.

It did. It might be the most emotional I got at any movie at Sundance this year.

Anthony: Thanks, man.

You have this long, successful career with musicians and music videos. Why was this the story you needed to tell as your first feature?

Anthony: For me, it was two-fold. The opportunity to step into a heralded piece of material, as this is, that asks this question, “Can one moment in your life define your life?” As we watch this 17-year-old black kid defend his innocence against this murder charage, the way that crystallizes this lens that we can look at criminal justice and prison reform and how we treat social issues felt important, which was paramount for me. I wanted to be part of a film that was important and could create a discussion. The second layer is that you’re watching an adolescent kid find his voice, which I can identify with and I went through. Watching his curiosity and this idea of Icarus flying too close to the sun, and how easy it is watch your wings melt and not even know it’s happening and what can happen. The two sides of that were very appealing to me for different reasons, and it felt like the right thing to do.

If you had told me that a 25 year old had made this movie, I would completely believe it [Mandler is 44]. It feels very youthful and energetic, and then I wondered if maybe you’re saying that this might be the film that Steve would make of his own story. You drive that idea home with the directing credit at the end, but was that the idea? “How would he tell his own story?”

Anthony: Yeah, the book is written like a screenplay, so we already know that we’re going to be playing in this break-the-fourth-wall, film-within-a-film thing. When you bring that to life in the movie, you’ve basically got the fact that Steve Harmon is writing a film that he’s basically telling you, and then he’s shooting his life as part of that film and then photographing the whole thing. Certain devices that feel on the nose exist in the language of the film within the film, in the adolescence of it as well. Half the movie is a hard-hitting courtroom drama, and the other half is the exploration of youth. We essentially wanted to use different facilities in telling those stories, so that you were still attached to what Steve was making.

You’d figure at this point, after the last couple of years of feature and docs, mainly regarding the police, that nothing would be shocking anymore. But there are things Jennifer says to you like, “You’re young, you’re black and you’re on trial to this jury.” And the whole idea of not worrying about being found innocent, but just being looked at as a human being by the jury, these things are still shocking to hear. Talk about that slap-in-the-face aspect of some of these realities. 

Kelvin: I think these are the things that are eye opening to Steve as well. We forget; he forgets. And then you start to get settled and you go, “We’re progressive, and it’s 2018. Everyone gets it. We’re all human. We’re all equal.” And she’s like, “No, no, no. This is not how the court sees you. This is not how the law sees you, and that hasn’t changed, so now you need to change if you want to survive.” That conversation is still so necessary, because it makes you wonder “Why is that happening? Why is that a thing? Why does this 17 year old need to transform so he can get off for something that he didn’t even really do?” That gets into the flaws of the judicial system.

Not a lot of films dealing with injustice deal with the court aspect of it, and how slanted all of that is about someone in that age group and that race. 

Anthony: I would put it out there that the on-the-nose concepts in the movie are this: young, black, in jail, black man with a rap sheet down on the block, “make you a human being in the eyes of the jury.” These are the on-the-nose concepts that haven’t gone away. These are the things that we have to hit you square on the forehead with, because people forget, even as this topic sits at the top of our feeds every day. We still have to say these things, and when you hear them on screen, they still land as shocking. “Our job is to make you a human being in the eyes of the jury.” That gets pretty on the nose, but that lands today.

Kelvin: It’s straightforward. We can sugarcoat it. We can gloss over it. We can say it a million different ways. What it does is, it just points to the facts. That’s what’s happening.

Let’s talk about pulling actors out of the world of music. Did you have these people in mind? Someone like Nas or A$AP Rocky are great here.

Anthony: It’s a coincidence. John Legend and Nas were both honest with us, and they were producers before I came in. When I read the script, A$AP Rocky was the only person to play King for me. I made the phone call, and he was hysterical. That was easy. Jennifer Hudson is also a very good friend, and I just thought that she has a very deep, emotionally grounding presence to her, especially when it comes to tragedy and family, because I know what she’s been through. I didn’t think about it at all that they’re all musicians, but just great actors and great characters in that sense.

There are going to be a lot of people who see this, who don’t know A$AP Rocky and are going to think he’s another actor.

Anthony: It’s already happened.

What is it you want people thinking and talking about when they leave this movie? 

Anthony: I think, as a society, we’re really set on hammering things black or white, figuratively. The film really exists in the gray. The idea was to create a scenario that is arguable from all sides, but it still made up of humans. If the film helps open up a discussion about law and mass incarceration or social justice, then that’s what we want. It’s also there for people as a cautionary tale, for fathers to show their sons. It’s there for mothers to show their kids. It’s there for kids to see and talk about. It’s there to say “Really, really crazy stuff can happen in the blink of an eye.” At the same time, don’t throw out the importance of experience. You can look at everything from two sides. If I didn’t go journey and put my own life at risk to become a better photographer or director, which I spent 20 years doing, I wouldn’t have been able to tell this story with a level of authenticity or real insight.

One of the ways that this doesn’t feel like a new filmmaker’s work is the structure and having multiple timelines. I just imagine this giant dry-erase board…

Anthony: You’re right. It was a huge board with scene photos. We spent six months doing this, because that’s how the book is. And it was maddening [laughs]. It was maddening, because we had to keep the power of the structure intact, but also know that this was a slow burn. The idea was to beat people out of their preconceived notions by fucking with you, and showing you different sides of this kid and using stylistic devices to separate the world. All very, very intentional—trying to funnel people down a hallway that’s getting more and more narrow, until you’re basically like, “Fuck, I don’t know what the truth is, I don’t know what it is, because it feels like 10 different things.”

At a certain point, we figure out that at some point, we’re going to see what actually happened, and even that doesn’t play out exactly how we think it will. That might be the most gray thing about this story.

Anthony: Is there a winner? Is there a victory? In the book, he’s innocent. We certainly didn’t want to change that for effect. But, the idea being that no matter what the outcome—guilty or innocent—no one comes out of this unscathed. This is an experience that will resonate with the people directly involved. That’s why when the family [of the victim] walks in the courtroom, and you haven’t seen them for a month, the wife sits down and looks at Steve’s parents, and it’s such a hard-hitting moment. We’re rooting for this kid, but it’s easy to forget that this other guy is dead, and his family, friends, and the community around him are as horrified as we are that Steve could go to jail.

As an actor, what did you learn from this experience. This is probably the most in depth you’ve ever been able to dive into a character in a film. What did you take away from this? 

Kelvin: That’s a really good question. It required a lot, this movie. It was the first time when vanity had to be completely removed from me. I really had to trust Anthony, 100 percent, and I had to understand that I did not know everything. It was an interesting one to collaborate on, because [Steve] is from New York and he is a filmmaker, and though I understand the commonality between us is being young, there are so many other things that I had to explore and trust that Anthony would tell me if I was doing this completely wrong.

That was my greatest gift in this process, just like feeling the comfort of throwing it all on the table and knowing that he would handle it appropriately, and he would even say, “You’re doing the most,” or, “You need to reel it back or bring it back.” That process was so relieving for me. It just let off a big weight, and I’ve carried it on to my films afterwards. When I was doing It Comes at Night, I was so protective of everything. I love Trey [Edward Shults, writer-director]. I’m doing another movie with Trey. I was probably very, very hard to work with because I was so protective of that performance. With this, I just trusted everything he had to say, and I think that’s such a rare thing that happens. It’s great thing to carry that on with you into other films and projects.

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