Debuting at the Sundance Film Festival in January of 2018, it has been a long and winding road for music-video director Anthony Mandler’s first feature film ‘Monster’ to make it to audiences. Though close to three and a half years have unfolded since its first screening, the film finally found a home at Netflix, premiering on the streaming service on Friday, May 7th. While three whole years may seem like a long time in the world of film, the themes of the John Legend-produced ‘Monster’ have sadly not lost a shred of relevancy or applicability to the America it is now being widely released in to.
Adapted from Walter Dean Myers’ 1999 National Book Award nominee of the same name, ‘Monster’ tells the story of a seventeen-year-old African American boy named Steve Harmon who is arrested and put on trial for felony murder. Harmon, an aspiring filmmaker, simultaneously narrates the story of both his life before incarceration and his unfolding court case, as if creating and dictating the very film that the audience has tuned in to.
With a quietly stellar lead performance from the up-and-coming Kelvin Harrison Jr., strong supporting performances from Jennifer Hudson and Jeffrey Wright as Harmon’s parents and A$AP Rocky, John David Washington, and Jharrel Jerome as the young men who bring trouble into Harmon’s life, and an impressive eye for visual symbolism from first-time director Mandler, the film is able to enunciate some of the hardest truths and moral gray areas of the American justice system, asking the audience who they really see when they look at a boy on trial like Steve Harmon.
A Penchant for Dynamic Visual Storytelling
Throughout ‘Monster’, Mandler uses many clear and clever optical tools to further divide the concurrently dueling stories of Harmon’s life. Likely any audience member will be able to pick up on the stark visual contrast between Harmon’s adolescent flashbacks in the vibrant New York City and the colorless gloom of the courtroom and prison cell. New York is seen as an energetic mesh of greens and reds and rooftop sunsets unfurl in spectacular pinks and purples, whereas the trial takes place in a listless ashen hue.
Harmon is often seen outside in these flashbacks which creates a jarring effect when returning to the perpetually dull greys that enclose him in the present. Often the camera is placed behind persistent visible barriers when cutting back to the latter setting, be they a glass divider at a conjugal visit or the caged bars of a cell, reflecting the inescapable isolation that Harmon is held captive within.
Another piece of chromatic irony is seen in the short films that Harmon creates for his film club led by Tim Blake Nelson’s Lerory Sawicki. Sawicki tells Harmon that he needs to ‘find his story’ in order to create a worthwhile film, and in this pursuit, Harmon records his surroundings completely devoid of color, an arrant black and white. As Harmon eventually tells the audience, the courtroom too leaves no room for moral grey. As he sees it in his own case, the jury is only allowed to see in black and white.
A Unique Perspective on Truth
At the center of the film lies a meaningful rumination on the nature of truth and the inability to quantifiably understand it through a single event, trial, or even a film. The audience is taken along as Harmon slowly unwinds his full story, from his adoration of film and amorous misadventures to his reluctant friendship with Rocky’s William King, ultimately leaving it up to the individual interpretation of what the solid ‘truth’ of his story really is. The screenplay, written by Janece Shaffer, Colen C. Wiley, and star, director, and writer of last year’s ‘The 40-Year-Old Version’ Radha Blank, ensures that watching ‘Monster’ does not provide a singular moral conclusion to the story of Steve Harmon. Nothing, not even the decision of a jury, can fully dictate guilt or innocence as it pertains to the notion of individual truth.
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While avoiding spoilers, many may find the film’s resolution somewhat confusing or divisive for many of the reasons stated above. Much like the ending of Emerald Fennell’s recent Oscar-winning ‘Promising Young Woman’ (2020), ‘Monster’ leaves much of the ultimate ethical and emotional understanding up to the audience and much like that film, ‘Monster’ is sure to be met with some critical blowback and mixed reactions. But as was the case with Fennell’s film, this choice is made cogently and deliberately in order to leave the audience with an important question rather than rushed and flimsy answers. While neither film takes the eventual direction that many viewers may expect or accept, they stay true to their own compositional outlook on justice and the means with which to deliver it.
‘Monster’ – A Lasting Cultural Significance
Very few films dare to show the ugliness of America’s justice system for a person of color with as much patience and brutal honesty as Mandler’s ‘Monster’. At most, these themes serve as mere plot points or background fodder whereas, with this film, they ring throughout every single frame. While admittedly edited a tad bit choppily throughout, moments like Harmon’s sudden arrest and the vicious prosecutorial attacks against his personhood are laid bare for the audience to grapple with. Even the title is a play upon these ideas, with Harmon being directly labeled a ‘monster’ by the prosecution in their opening remarks to the jury.
‘Monster’ is not always a pleasant watch, be it the tragic subject matter or authentically desperate performances, but it remains throughout an important one. In the wake of the conviction of former police officer Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd on April 20th and the year of protests for racial justice reform that Floyd’s death mobilized, films like ‘Monster’ are made even more essential. Not only can said media help audiences assess the supposedly unimpeachable notions of truth and justice in modern America, but they can also galvanize a whole new generation to look within themselves and see stories like Harmon’s not as that of a monster but as that of a human being.
Cast: Kelvin Harrison Jr., Jeffrey Wright, Jennifer Hudson, A$AP Rocky, John David Washington, Jharrel Jerome, Tim Blake Nelson, Jennifer Ehle, Lovie Simone
Cinematographer: David Delvin | Editor: Joe Klotz
Director: Anthony Mandler | Writers: Radha Blank, Janece Shaffer, Colen C. Wiley
Producers: John Legend, Nas, Tonya Lewis Lee, Nikki Silver, Aaron L. Gilbert, Mike Jackson, Edward Tyler Nahem
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Andrew Valianti is a writer and an aspiring producer-director, and all-around film lover. While writing both features and reviews for the Hollywood Insider, Andrew has focused on the intersection of cinema and politics as they relate to empowering diverse stories and viewpoints. Through both study and practice, Andrew has seen first hand the many ways in which film and media can have a positive and meaningful impact on everyday lives. His personal views align with the Hollywood Insider, as he views journalism as a means to empower and mobilize positive change rather than spread gossip or negativity. He believes that art ignites action and has sought to pursue stories that further this goal.