Anthony Mandler’s film adaptation of Walter Dean Myers’ Monster enjoyed opening and closing night slots on prestigious festivals back in 2018. It’s taken three years, but the jump from festivals finally happened. And today, mainstream viewers who watch their films through streaming services get to see the story of a Black male teenage film student. That student is Steve Harmon (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), who gets the ‘monster’ label from a racist New York District Attorney (Paul Ben-Victor).
The state puts Steve in jail because two Black men robbed and killed a Latinx bodega owner, and the film switches among different scenario that involve Steve. The film shows him in jail and on trials that his beleaguered parents (Jennifer Hudson and eew, executive producer Jeffrey Wright) attend. But the standout scenes show flashbacks of him hanging around in Harlem. Through him, the film shows Harlem’s different facets. He crosses through the neighborhood’s borders where parts have either gentrified itself organically or not.
These flashbacks in Monster, then, show Steve belonging within the ‘better’ parts of Harlem. Even the costume choices show him as middle class hipster who does and doesn’t belong in the neighborhood’s rougher areas. In the latter, he meets an equally hipster-y Black man, William King (A$AP Rocky) and Bobo (John David Washington). Both are also suspects of the bodega shooting.
But let’s return to when Steve first runs into William. That moments begins a relationship where Steve chooses William as a subject in one of his film projects. That relationship, then, is symbolic of this syndrome where middle class Black people use their working class counterparts for aesthetics. That’s a valid syndrome ripe for investigation in a film with a Black cast and crew. For one, Nas – eew – and John Legend sign up as executive producers here. And sure, a white director like Mandler can examine those ideas, but his execution of those ideas is lacking.
The cast’s young core, which obviously includes Harrison and Rocky, do their best to humanize Monster‘s ideas, and the same goes for the supporting actors. For example, Tim Blake Nelson usually plays working class white men. But here he pulls a John Turturro and plays Steve’s film teacher Leroy Sawicki who vouches for him. By the way, that vouching happens in what looks like the swankiest court room in film history. Films always deserve some brownie points for casting actors against type.
This whole cast, though, can’t save a script that mistakes artistic license with vagueness, specially in a courtroom drama, a genre most armchair lawyers are too familiar with. The scene between the DA and Leroy is an example of bad writing. It exists as a deus ex machina for Steve, making it easy for his lawyer (Jennifer Ehle) to defend him. Most of the cast here has been in better films, and hopefully Harrison lands something good eventually.
- Rated: R
- Genre: Crime, Drama
- Release Date: 5/7/2021
- Directed by: Anthony Mandler
- Starring: A$AP Rocky, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Tim Blake Nelson
- Produced by: Aaron L. Gilbert, Nikki Silver
- Written by: Colen C. Wiley, Walter Dean Myers
- Studio: Creative Wealth Media Finance, Red Crown Productions, Tonik Productions