Writer-director Reinaldo Marcus Green’s triptych drama Monsters and Men, about the intersections of cops and civilians in New York City, is one of a number of new films to focus on police brutality. (Other notables include Blindspotting and the upcoming The Hate U Give.) At times, Green’s film feels too familiar, exploring what we already know — cops can be dirty and may retaliate if they’re crossed. The tone is muted, subtle, as opposed to other dramas that take on the subject with outrage, anger and a fitting formal chaos. In that way, Monsters and Men seems like it was made for the world that existed a few years ago. I honestly can’t tell if my dissatisfaction is with the movie or the era into which it is released.
The first story is deeply inspired by Ramsey Orta, the man who documented Eric Garner’s murder and is — to this day — the only person present at Garner’s death to go to prison. Here, his name is Manny Ortega (Anthony Ramos), but the rest of his narrative is true to Orta’s. He has a child and is gainfully employed when a couple of local cops begin intimidating him, spending their free time trying to dig up anything to put Ortega away. They succeed; imagine people with every resource at their fingertips and all the time in the world sorting through your past to trump up a charge. For Manny, there’s no rage, no defense. It’s a slow, slogging walk of a narrative, with Ortega’s fate sealed. And that’s likely Green’s point, that there is no fight that can save this man.
In the second story, John David Washington plays a good cop, Dennis, in a sea of bad or indifferent officers. Washington offers a far more contemplative performance than his work in BlacKkKlansman. When it comes to Dennis, other cops see colorblind as long as he’s wearing his uniform. An early scene depicts Dennis out of uniform, grooving to “Let’s Stay Together” in his car. Then he gets pulled over, for no reason that he can discern. His eyes grow alert, scanning for dangers in the situation; the badge he’s set in his lap for the cop to see won’t protect him. Dennis’ story is at times tense, but emotion, again, is kept largely under the surface.
In the final narrative, starring Kelvin Harrison Jr. as Major League Baseball hopeful Zyric, that repressed feeling bursts out, powering the most compelling section of the film. Zyric has been subject to random stop-and-frisks, but he has never been busted for anything. As his dad says, he was “raised the right way.” But one unexpected brush with the cops seems to convince the kid that his strict childhood has nothing to do with whether he’ll potentially die at the hands of the police. As Zyric tries to live a Colin Kaepernick-style double life as an activist protester and a professional athlete, the film questions why our society so often makes it impossible to stand up to injustice yet still follow your dreams.
A long shot holding on Zyric’s face at a sit-in reveals how much more potent the rest of the film might have been. We watch as Zyric lies down on the ground with his compatriots, the police shouting threats of arrest. Fear and resolve alternately wash across his face as he decides to stay, risking his career and his father’s affection. To me, that’s the story we need now, the story of kids realizing adults are bullshit and that they still have time to make their own fate.