TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. The new film "Monsters And Men" tells the stories of three Brooklyn men, played by Anthony Ramos, John David Washington and Kelvin Harrison Jr., whose lives are impacted by the shooting of an unarmed black man by a white police officer in their neighborhood. The movie won a Special Jury Prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival for Reinaldo Marcus Green making his feature writing and directing debut. Film critic Justin Chang has this review.
JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: The opening scene of the haunting new drama "Monsters And Men" immediately sets a mood of slow-building tension and silent outrage. An African-American man named Dennis played by John David Washington is driving around New York, singing along to Al Green on the radio. A white police officer pulls him over and asks to see his license. Dennis quietly complies and also shows his badge. He's a cop too. The interaction ends without further incident, but the damage is done. As Dennis will later note, this isn't the first time he's been pulled over by a cop for the crime of driving while black.
What we are watching is just a prologue, an introduction to a trilogy of stories set in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. The writer and director, Reinaldo Marcus Green, has structured "Monsters And Men" as a daisy chain of loosely connected narratives. We will return to Dennis later. But first, we meet Manny, a young Latino man played by Anthony Ramos of "Hamilton" fame. He has a wife, a young daughter and a job working security at a sleek Manhattan office building.
But everything changes when Manny witnesses a black man named Darius, or Big D, being confronted by police on a street corner in Bed-Stuy one night. Manny whips out his cellphone and records the incident, which ends with Big D getting fatally shot. The police will later erroneously claim that the victim was lunging for an officer's weapon. But Manny's video footage, which he posts online, reveals a different story. Manny's brave actions reap some unpleasant personal consequences.
But before we can see them play out, the movie whisks us back to Dennis, the cop we met earlier. He too is unnerved by the shooting in his precinct and also by the anger of black friends and neighbors who suddenly regard him as an enemy rather than an ally. Washington recently played a cop torn between his racial identity and his professional duty in Spike Lee's "BlacKkKlansman." But his work in "Monsters And Men" is quietly superior, a seething slow burn of a performance.
Before long, the story shifts focus once more, now settling on a black high school student named Zyrick, played by Kelvin Harrison Jr. Zyrick is a smart, shy kid who normally keeps his head down and who's close to securing a college baseball scholarship. But he's rattled by the heightened police presence in his neighborhood, especially after he's stopped and frisked by cops while walking home one night. Zyrick begins attending protests against the warnings of his father, played by Rob Morgan, who just wants him to focus on baseball.
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ROB MORGAN: (As Will Morris) Hey, Zyric, where you think you're going?
KELVIN HARRISON JR.: (As Zyric) I'm going downtown.
MORGAN: (As Will Morris) Downtown?
HARRISON: (As Zyric) I mean, can't see you what's happening out there?
MORGAN: (As Will Morris) And you want to do what exactly?
HARRISON: (As Zyric) I thought you'd...
MORGAN: (As Will Morris) Thought I'd what?
HARRISON: (As Zyric) I'd thought you'd understand.
MORGAN: (As Will Morris) This happens every day, man. You better start listening to what's going on around you.
HARRISON: (As Zyric) But I am listening.
MORGAN: (As Will Morris) Z, I mean, you've got a hoodie on for Christ's sake. Come on, Z. You're going out at night to some damn march on the night before the biggest day of your life, son. some. Work with me, man. Cities are going to keep burning. Kids are going to keep getting shot. And cops are going to keep getting off. And I don't like that neither, son, but I know it's a reality, all right. But my reality right now is that you have a ticket out.
CHANG: The echoes of real-world headlines are unmistakable and in some cases deliberate. Big D was inspired by Eric Garner, the Staten Island man who died in 2014 after being placed in a chokehold by police. Another plot point clearly references the shooting deaths of two New York police officers from later that year. But there's more to "Monsters And Men" than it's carefully engineered topical parallels. Green has made a politically urgent, emotionally layered portrait of how a single violent act can send tendrils of shock, anger and anxiety outward into a vulnerable community. There are a few on-the-nose scenes when the script runs the risk of stuffing talking points into its characters' mouths. But the power of the movie lies in its silences - those moments when it shows its characters thinking, reflecting and then taking quick decisive action.
The cinematographer Patrick Scola keeps the camera in motion - sometimes trailing the characters from behind, sometimes framing them from across a street or a park. The movie is somehow both meditative and propulsive - pushing and pulling the characters toward moments of moral clarity. Notably, Green doesn't show us the video of Big D's shooting almost as if he were unwilling to sensationalize his own narrative. Instead, he shows us Manny, Dennis and Zyric all watching the video in private. And in their expressions, we can see rage, grief and a helplessness verging on paralysis.
But if "Monsters And Men" begins in despair, it moves slowly but surely toward a note of bracing hard-won optimism. It's fitting that the movie climaxes with Zyric's story, in which we see nothing less than the dawning of a young man's social and political consciousness. I won't give away the thrilling tracking shot that ends the movie - except to say that even after the screen goes dark, you can still feel the camera hurtling forward almost as if it were still looking for its next subject. After passing the narrative baton from one character to the next, Green ends by passing it to us.
GROSS: Justin Chang is a film critic for the LA Times. Monday on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about the journalistic challenges of investigating Russian interference in the election and connections between the Trump campaign and Russia. My guest will be Washington Post reporter Greg Miller, who broke several related stories and shared a Pulitzer Prize this year. Now he has a new book called "The Apprentice: Trump, Russia and the Subversion of American Democracy." I hope you'll join us.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our engineer today is Adam Staniszewski (ph). We have additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.
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