How does a filmmaker navigate the tricky subject of racist shootings by US police? It is the terrible relevance of the issue that makes it such a double edged sword: it is a subject that demands attention and yet one that is so raw that any depiction on-screen opens itself up to the possibility of fervent criticism for any perceived flaws in its representation. How can one film confront the long-brewing racial tensions in American society, explore the potent mix of despair and rage in targeted black communities, and challenge the justice system’s seeming abandonment of black victims?
Reinaldo Marcus Green’s feature debut Monsters and Men takes an original approach to tackling these issues, forgoing a traditional narrative structure for an introspective character study of three individuals all connected to the fatal shooting of Brooklyn shopkeeper Darius Lawson. In a bold move, these interconnected stories are all told sequentially; once we leave a character, we do not see them again, and the little we find out about their fate is given second-hand through the words of supporting characters. This is not a film with answers; it is a film that demands its audience consider the solutions themselves.
The three leads (Hamilton alum Anthony Ramos, BlacKkKlansman’s John David Washington, and Kelvin Harrison Jr.) all bring humanity and nuance to their characters, allowing the audience to become invested in their stories despite spending only thirty minutes with each. The script circumvents the possibility of having a weaker section by ensuring all three characters have a compelling internal conflict that propels the story forward despite the restrained pace. Perhaps the best example of this comes during an argument between cop Dennis (Washington) and a dinner party guest infuriated by his defence of the police officer responsible for the shooting. In a heavily understated performance, Washington is able to portray both Dennis’ genuine belief in his own words and the creeping doubt that has been gnawing at him in the aftermath of Lawson’s death.
While the plot hinges on a fatal act of violence, Green makes the choice not to show the shooting on screen. When we hear the gunshot, the audience knows what has happened; stories like this are a prominent part of the news cycle these days. By forcing us to focus on the reaction of observers and the community instead, Green forces us to confront the messy emotional and societal effects of systematic violence rather than focus on the shock value of blood and gore.
Despite this lack of on-screen violence, there is a tension that lasts throughout most of the runtime – not the edge-of-your-seat suspense of a thriller, but the sustained sense of threat that comes from the ever-present police cars patrolling Brooklyn and the impossibility of knowing when a routine stop could turn lethal. This highlights one of the key strengths of Green’s direction – it pulls the audience into the rather mundane lives of its protagonists in such a way that the viewer lives their struggles with them. Whether you are African-American, or, like this reviewer, white British, for ninety minutes you are part of a community where the cops are a threat, and the safety of your child, friend or neighbour is never guaranteed.
Perhaps one of the most fraught problems for a fictional depiction of this particular issue is how the story ends. If justice is served, the ending could appear disingenuous and false, as well as potentially throw off any attempt the narrative makes to highlight very real injustice. But ending on a negative risks accusations of being defeatist. When faced with this dilemma, Green chooses a third option: don’t end at all. When the credits roll we do not know what happens to the cop who killed Darius Lawson. We don’t get closure for the challenges faced by any of our leads. The story, much like the issue with which it contends, remains unresolved. It is up to the audience to imagine what happens next, and perhaps, to shape the narrative themselves before another unarmed black civilian becomes the next Darius Lawson.
Monsters and Men opens in UK cinemas on 18th January 2019.