American cinema’s appetite for themes of race and class shows no sign of abating. This latest contribution from debut writer and director Reinaldo Marcus Green comes in a series of increasingly class-conscious movies.
Monsters and Men’s raw aesthetic and unapologetically direct style, stripped of the self-conscious pretensions of some of its predecessors, reinvents social realism for 2019 and makes for a gripping 90 minutes that propels us into the Brooklyn enclave of Bed-Stuy and its inhabitants’ problems, joys and struggles.
Manny, a young man struggling to support his family, witnesses the cops shooting an unarmed man and events spiral out of his control. The power of this movie lies in the direct treatment of its subject matter. It’s part of the new wave of black US films that have yielded the likes of the already classic Get Out and the breathtakingly hard-edged Sorry to Bother You, but intriguingly Monsters and Men eschews the comic surrealism of these movies to deliver a gritty taste of what life is like for many young, black Americans.
This is neither a po-faced rant nor an ironic meta-commentary. It is an energetic exposition of what happens when cops kill black people in the street.
Green deals with similar subjects and characters to those found in the Oscar-winning Moonlight, but while that otherwise brilliant film occasionally veers into caricature and stereotype, Monsters and Men avoids worthiness by imbuing the Brooklyn locals with love and affection, even in the most trying of circumstances. It’s a movie with a lot of heart, and that’s what makes it such an enjoyable experience.
Like Sorry to Bother You, it’s another example of a Hollywood movie that charts the stories of ordinary people engaging in collective struggle in an attempt to improve their circumstances. They do so with a growing political consciousness and confidence. This is reflective of a climate in America that has seen years of struggle for justice for victims of police shooting, the movement for fast food rights and the ongoing fight against Trump.
As a side note, TV and movies have been struggling for the last several years with how to dramatize peoples’ use of phones. This is the most naturalistic attempt yet: no clunky text projected onto the screen here, instead, the characters’ personal use of technology is expertly woven into the narrative, making it almost invisible and mirroring our own experience. It makes the impact of the police killing much more powerful.
Whereas the majority of recent movies from black writers and directors have been informed more or less explicitly by the politics of intersectionality, Monsters and Men is much more preoccupied with class and social position and how this shapes people’s experience and informs their decisions.
Talking about the black police officer portrayed in the film, the director says “I wanted people to feel conflicted… I wanted to stay true to that line and that grey area. It’s not about right or wrong, if we keep thinking that, there’s no path forward.”
Viewers will decide for themselves how conflicted they feel about his actions, but it says a lot about the political climate in America today that a film that’s intended to be morally ambiguous comes across as so radical.