'Monsters And Men' Is An Uneven But Potent Drama About Police Violence [TIFF]

It's both sad and encouraging that a cinematic vocabulary has developed around the continuing incidents of police officers shooting unarmed black men. In their most recent films, filmmakers Jordan Peele and Spike Lee have even knowingly created moments of dramatic irony around the perceived outcome of cops arriving at a nebulously defined scene. We know that they might perceive differently than the characters involved in it, producing a moment of unbearable tension. While the awareness generated after the Black Lives Matter movement propelled these longstanding injustices into public consciousness is important, such recognition has not necessarily accompanied sweeping attitudinal changes.

Reinaldo Marcus Green's Monsters and Men, a tripartite examination of race and policing in America, is very much a movie of its moment. But with the sheer volume of other films tackling similar questions of racial identity in the face of imminent and insidious oppression – Blindspotting, Sorry to Bother You, BlacKkKlansman, to name a few from 2018 alone – it cannot lay exclusive claim to the mantle. While Green's debut feature might not be able to match other comparable titles in the nuance of its observations, he compensates with breadth of experience documented. He crafts a film akin to The Place Beyond the Pines within the blast radius of a police shooting, watching how a community-shattering event produces fallout that creeps ever outward beyond the initial participants.

The first act of Monsters and Men unfolds rather predictably, if still absorbingly. Anthony Ramos' Manny Ortega is an average Brooklynite, trying to put food on the table for his family – which is about to grow by one. His striving towards middle-class stability takes a detour when the police begin confronting a black man selling cigarettes outside the neighborhood bodega. (Perhaps the scene is meant to echo fellow New Yorker Eric Garner, who lost his life for a similar offense while yelling the soon-to-be rallying cry "I can't breathe" as officers held him in an illegal chokehold.) Manny, wise to how these skirmishes play out, whips out his smartphone and makes the police officers well aware that he is monitoring their exploits. Yet even the presence of a video recording cannot stop what, unfortunately, everyone senses is coming.

The rest of Manny's time in the movie plays out exactly as expected given that he's in possession of material that would put the NYPD in hot water. Ramos, earnest and angry, at least makes his section of Monsters and Men interesting, but he can never transcend just how preordained Manny's fate is from the moment he presses record. Maybe future generations less familiar with the minutiae of how powerful institutions silence and intimidate potential whistleblowers will find his segment more compelling. All those steeped in today's news cycle, on the other hand, will be able to cruise through Manny's section of the film on auto-pilot.

Things take a turn towards the more thematically complex when the perspective of Monsters and Men shifts to John David Washington's Dennis, a black NYPD officer uninvolved in the fateful shooting but left profoundly impacted by it all the same. While Dennis proudly dons the blue police uniform, certain colleagues' inclination to tolerate the bad apples begins to erode his self-confidence. Since the department provides no incentive to hold abusive officers accountable, he continues steadfastly in his duties but carrying the knowledge that the behaviors leading to unnecessary bloodshed are going unchecked.

Following the shooting, Dennis receives increased skepticism from friends and family as to how he can reconcile his professional identity with his racial identity. The dilemma is similar to the one Washington faced as officer Ron Stallworth in BlacKkKlansman – is it possible to achieve racial justice from within an organization that perpetuates racist attitudes, or can real change only be made by agitation outside of the existing power structure? Dennis claims the job is not a choice, even as those around him begs to differ. He never arrives at a definitive moment of truth before Green changes protagonists once again, which feels like an honest place to leave the character. The spot Monsters and Men leaves Dennis in likely intersects with the path of many in the audience, wondering how the police can serve as a solution to a problem for which they are responsible.

But the truly shining section of Monsters and Men arrives in its walloping third act, which centers around Kelvin Harrison Jr.'s baseball phenom Zyrick as he prepares for a major-league showcase. Even as his hard work on the field is on the verge of paying massive dividends, Zyrick cannot shake his nagging indignity over the recent shooting. He's well aware of the role discrimination and racial bias plays in his life in everything from a bogus stop-and-frisk by police officers to a sneakier "character test" administered by a baseball scout. But this particular gunning down of an innocent man urges him towards a more forceful stance against a broken system, even if it that power structure has not directly hampered his professional aspirations.

As if overtaken by Martin Luther King Jr.'s maxim that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, Zyrick begins organizing with a group of strident protesters who are fully prepared to fight the power. His story serves a potent reminder that true activism is more than just posting a hashtag or public posturing – enacting real change often requires people to put their bodies in harm's way and their futures in jeopardy. Harrison makes his character's subtle journey towards embracing his inner radical, who's willing to rock the boat even if it means imperiling his baseball prospects, a genuinely moving one. He vibrantly expresses a portion of black adolescence seldom seen on the big screen.

Though elements of it peek through in the other characters, Zyrick represents the only persona through which Green fully realizes his vision of self-actualization frequently denied to people of color in these narratives. He intersperses flashes of their joy occurring in spite of the violence, an ebullience so rarely afforded to people whose primary motivation tends towards self-preservation in a dangerous society. Zyrick hammers home the message of Monsters and Men with grace: it is possible to find one's place in the world while also vehemently opposing the forces that created such a place.

/Film Rating: 7.5 out of 10