Following the fourth season of HBO’s Ballers and an Oscar-buzzed role in Spike Lee’s BlackKklansman, John David Washington — the talented son of Denzel — steps up with another forceful, socially relevant performance in Monsters and Men. In a striking debut feature, writer-director Reinaldo Marcus Green uses three perspectives to examine the shooting of an unarmed black man by a white cop in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. The victim is Darius Larson, a.k.a. Big D (Samel Edwards), a local who sells loose cigarettes outside a Bed-Stuy deli And if Big D reminds you of Eric Garner — who died in 2014 after police placed him in a chokehold — it’s not accidental.
Washington plays Dennis, an African-American man shown singing along to Al Green in his car before a white cop pulls him over. It’s racial proofing in action. There’s a gun on the front seat. It turns out Dennis is a cop, currently working undercover and sadly accustomed to being hassled by his colleagues. It’s also Dennis who sees the shooting of Big D by a fellow cop. Caught in a vise of indecision — does he rat on his brother in blue or let it go? — Dennis brings his crisis of conscience home to his wife and children.
There’s no uncertainty in the mind of Manny (Anthony Ramos), a Latino family man who films Big D’s murder on his smartphone, goading the police in the process and getting threatened by two white cops after his video goes viral. Ramos, who costarred in Broadway’s Hamilton, has a talent that jumps off the screen. Manny’s scenes with his wife (Jasmine Cephas Jones, another Hamilton vet) show what’s at stake when fate forces your hand.
The video also impacts Zyric (an outstanding Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a high-school student this close to a college baseball scholarship. Zyric’s political awakening worries his father (Rob Morgan) who believes his son’s planned participation in a march against the murder of Big D will hurt his career. But like quarterback Colin Kaepernick, Zyric symbolically takes a knee by raising his voice against police brutality.
As Patrick Scola’s camera prowls the landscape of protest, Monsters and Men grows in strength and purpose.The master plan of the film, expertly laid out by Green, is to show how these three otherwise unrelated characters — each a person of color — are united in condemning inaction as another form of complicity. Green sometimes hits his points too hard, letting his fierce human drama drift into polemic. But there’s no denying the righteous indignation that fuels Monsters and Men, a powerhouse that couldn’t be more timely or necessary.