As activists in Sacramento, Calif., continue to demonstrate and demand justice in the police-related deaths of Stephon Clark, Brandon Smith and Darell Richardson, it’s a reminder that extrajudicial violence by police takes it toll on the community at large just as it does on the families of the victims.
The constant presence of police violence in the news cycle is enough to drive anyone crazy, so imagine the impact if you witness the violence personally or are otherwise affected by it because of the job you do every single day.
In Monsters and Men, we are confronted with three different realities through the eyes of a black police officer named Dennis (played by John David Washington fresh off his turn as a different cop in BlacKkKlansman), who is caught in a conflict between his badge and his ethnic and social identity; Manny (played by Anthony Ramos of Netflix’s She’s Gotta Have It), the young man who captures the shooting on his cellphone camera; and young baseball prospect, Zyric (played by Kelvin Harrison Jr. of Mudbound, Birth of a Nation and 12 Years a Slave), who sees reflections of himself and his own mortality in the shooting victim and defies his own father to protest the shooting.
When it comes to Dennis, the movie does a brilliant job of making you look at both sides without saying “You gotta hear both sides.” It is not a both-sides argument in that it attempts to excuse or exonerate the police and their behavior but rather, it makes you consider and perhaps sympathize with the viewpoint of those who wear the badge and are sworn to it even as they have to endure all that comes with a failing on the part of one of their colleagues. It is not as simple as making a choice between one or the other—something Dennis emphatically expresses to his wife, Michelle (played by the beautiful and brilliant Nicole Beharie). By the end of the film, Dennis also has to consider both sides of the equation, and it is that sort of inward awareness and awakening that the film is able to translate over and over again through its various characters.
As with many of the victims we hear about in the news cycle, the shooting victim himself—Darius Larson (played by Samel Edwards)—becomes the catalyst for something even greater than himself. Even as his name is uplifted repeatedly throughout the film, he is on the fringes of a greater battle between good and evil, the man and the people, conscience versus reality. He is the invisible thread that weaves all three of these men’s stories together—there all the time, but unseen and unheard.
Filmmaker Reinaldo Marcus Green does a brilliant job of taking these three stories and tying them together in a tight narrative. He told The Root that the film is tied to a 2015 short he did called Stop, in which he explored the theme of police harassing black men.
Friends with a police officer himself, Green said conversations with his cop friend found their way into the dialogue of Monsters and Men.
Especially where it comes to Dennis, Green says the big question that comes up time and time again for police officers of color—especially in the wake of police shootings of black men—is “Are you one of us or one of them?”
It is not a question that is easy for a police officer to answer—if there even is a tangible answer. Can you be both, or do you have to choose one or the other?
Long after the names fade from the news cycle and the officers have gone back to work, the victims, the families and those caught in the aftermath still remain.
They still have to live their lives and navigate their new realities.
Monsters and Men gives us a peek at how those realities start and where they may potentially lead each individual.
Monsters and Men is in theaters now.