It’s maddening that a book written in 1999 still carries so much relevance in 2018. Nearly two decades ago, Walter Dean Myers’ young-adult novel approached a racist court system that paints African-American men as guilty “monsters” before any evidence is presented. Sadly, this concept holds true as former music video director-turned-first-time filmmaker Anthony Mandler (Beyoncé “Irreplaceable,” Jay-Z “Run This Town” and Rihanna “Diamonds,” among others) fittingly updates Myers’ work to the big screen with Monster.
The film follows the trial of 17-year-old Steve Harmon (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), who may or may not have been involved in a convenience store robbery that left an innocent man murdered. Although it’s up to a jury to decide Harmon’s fate, a cloud of guilt is already hovering over the honor student’s head, regardless of his middle-class upbringing and aspirations to escape Harlem for a career in film.
“I knew that this story was important,” Mandler explains to The Root with regard to why he decided that this adaptation would be his first film. “Having the opportunity to work with the headline ‘Can one decision define my whole life?’ as we watch a 17-year-old black kid sit in jail and defend his innocence against a system that is set up for him to lose through the lens of [a] crooked criminal-justice system was attractive.”
Monster is told using flashbacks that construct Harmon’s life up to the point of the alleged crime, and what we see is an all-too-familiar story involving minority youths where being at the wrong place at the wrong time can end up costing an individual his or her life.
Mandler is fortunate to have Harrison anchoring the role of Harmon because he turns in an excellent performance that leaves the viewer straddling the fence of whether or not Harmon had anything to do with the robbery that went wrong.
“I wanted a face that was complex, with an internal dialog that was tough to read,” Mandler says of Harrison’s nuanced performance. “I needed somebody who could toggle between vulnerability while not being too street. I needed somebody who came from a two-parent household. You can always tell because you can see the feminine and masculine in them. And the ridiculous cliché of the broken black family in Harlem, we wanted nothing to do with that.”
Much of the film is focused on Harrison’s expressions throughout the trial, in the streets of Harlem and in prison. Mandler makes the conscious decision to train the camera on his main character’s reactions to the horrors of being a teenager incarcerated with grown men rather than film the atmosphere surrounding him.
Even as the character Harmon interacts with the soon-to-be murderers—which include a magnetic performance from A$AP Rocky as King and John David Washington as Bobo—and the students in his film class, the camera often lingers long on his face as we try to read his thoughts through his expressions. Is he warming up to the idea of the fast life or is he simply toggling between two worlds in order to save face?
It’s a fascinating exploration that will likely resonate with many African-American men and women who have grown up around similar situations where one wrong turn can ruin your future. As for Harrison—who had feature roles in three movies at Sundance—he recognizes roles like this as a form of activism.
“Monster was my platform to discuss subjects like mass incarceration and how the criminal-justice system treats young black men, and that’s my version of activism,” Harrison says.
Mandler assembled a strong cast, which includes the likes of Jeffrey Wright, Jennifer Hudson, Nas, Jennifer Ehle and Tim Blake Nelson. But it is Harrison’s performance that will keep you engaged. Not because he occupies the majority of the camera time, but because he’s incredibly alluring and the pulse to a narrative that isn’t necessarily reinventing the wheel (HBO’s The Night Of told a similar story).
In an effort to stay true to the book, Monster features narration from the protagonist, who uses his time in prison to pen a screenplay. Unfortunately, the use of Harmon’s narration does come off disjointed at times. The young-adult novel is part script, part diary and part narrative, and Mandler does his best to keep all of those remnants intact, regardless of how it affects the overall film.
“We were very careful to protect as much of the book as possible,” he says. “We had to update things from 1999, such as the use of cellphones and security cameras, but all in all, it was about protecting the source material.”
Although the film is anchored by Harrison’s strong performance, Monster isn’t without its flaws. Jennifer Hudson, who plays Harmon’s mother, feels underutilized and extraordinarily one-dimensional. Jeffrey Wright doesn’t suffer from the same issue, since his role as Harmon’s father feels fully formed even though he shares roughly the same amount of camera time as Hudson. The same can’t be said of Harmon’s film-class friends and his love interest (played by Lovie Simone), who are all there for atmospheric purposes but don’t really lend much to the film or to Harmon’s development.
Those qualms aside, there is a gripping story about a young man who will likely have his life changed forever at the heart of the film’s 112-minute quest for the truth.
“There are no winners in this movie,” Mandler says. “Innocence or guilt, everyone’s lives have changed.”
And that’s the troubling part about this narrative. Regardless of whether Harmon is innocent or guilty, there is no doubt that his time in prison and the duration of his trial will peel layers away from his soul that he’ll never have returned to him. It is what Harrison manages to project extraordinarily well that will leave viewers scarred by the time the credits roll.
“I hope they see the complexity of a young black kid at 17,” Harrison says. “It’s not as simple as saying he got caught up in the wrong game and went to prison. Steve comes from a good family with a certain level of privilege, but he had to learn that he’s not exempt from the system, and that’s something that we all have to recognize.”