There’s a famous quote from the great French filmmmaker Jean Renoir, an expat who spent World War II in Hollywood trying to make his brand of important, politically allegorical films in “The Dream Factory.”
All Hollywood needs, he said at the end of a generally unproductive sojourn, “is a good bombing.” He wasn’t talking about its politics, but about its excess, the fantasy version of America and the world that disconnected Hollywood escapism from the real world.
Great art, he was saying, comes from people under stress. Orson Welles’ Harry Lime made a similar observation in “The Third Man,” nothing the Italian strife that produced The Renaissance, and Swiss peace which produced “the cuckoo clock.”
That seems to explain the film art we’ve been seeing from movies about the African American experience of American policing in recent years. A corner of society that feels (with statistical justification) under siege is inspiring filmmakers from Jordan Peele to Kathryn Bigelow, Spike Lee to George Tillman Jr. (“The Hate You Give”) and Reinaldo Marcus Green, whose “Monsters and Men” is as familiar as this week’s tragic shooting, next weekend’s plaintive but increasingly urgent protests about each shooting.
From “Get Out” to “Detroit,” “BlackKklansman” to this fall’s films zeroing in on the same flashpoint, we’re seeing movies remarkable in power and quality, consistent in message and surprising for their mere existence.
“Monsters and Men” is about a fictional Brooklyn/Bed-Stuy shooting inspired by many a real world incident, some involving police shooting an unarmed man, one infamous killing by strangling a suspect whose crime was selling single cigarettes in the ecosystem of his small, under-employed Staten Island neighborhood.
Director Green’s breakthrough film is about the ripple effects of such a death, how the circle-the-wagons mentality of the Brotherhood of Blue protects bad cops and how one criminal police action spreads hurt and destruction to everyone it touches — victim and cops, bystanders and those motivated to protest or, in some cases, retaliate.
Manny (Anthony Ramos ) is a kid with a kid — barely out of his teens, happy-go-lucky but job hunting and dodging the “ever been convicted of a felony) line on applications. In his neighborhood, it’s the exceptional who can check “no” in that box without lying. He lives with his mother and girlfriend (Jasmine Cephas Jones) and their infant daughter.
We see the eco-system he lives in, the economy that has one kid offer him a different (Stolen?) bike every day, the crap game he ducks into some evenings and the “dealer” who sells single cigarettes among other things right in front of the corner store. Darius (Samel Edwards) is a big, fatherly, friendly presence, nagging Manny to “take care of your girl,” giving kids candy money for the store right behind him.
So when NYPD swarms over Darius one night, Manny whips out his phone and amps up the tension and chaos of the situation by screaming at the cops and recording this overkill of an arrest. “SIX DUDES on one guy! SIX DUDES on ONE guy!”
We don’t see the shooting, we hear the shot. We see Manny’s horrified reaction. We can tell this world will never be the same. And on the same day Manny finally lands a job, he must respond to rising police harassment about “what you THINK you saw.” Posting that video, which Ramos plays as an agonizing decision, hotheaded youth or not, gets him arrested.
John David Washington (Denzel’s son starred in “BlackKklansman”) is Dennis, a veteran cop with decent rapport with the neighborhood, but a unique perspective on this shooting, which he didn’t witness. He knows there are bad cops, knows the bad cop who pulled the trigger. He also knows the culture. We meet him as he is stopped, for the umpteenth time, for “driving while black.”
As protests over the shooting grow and Internal Affairs launches an investigation, Dennis is caught up in the whole “stick up for your brother cop” mentality of a police department where institutional racism is a fact of life. Then there are the Buppy friends he and his wife (Cassandra Freeman) have over for dinner, people who challenge the loyalty he shows for a police force which never forgets to throw “You have no IDEA what we face” or “what it’s like to not know if you’re coming home tonight” into every debate, the victimhood card trumping all.
Police work, in case you ever get into this debate with a “Blue Lives Matter” supporter, is the 14th most dangerous profession in America. Armor played and armed to the teeth, “To Protect and Serve” has taken a back seat to “making sure I get to go home to my family at night.” Shooting on suspicion, shooting out of frustration, shooting because you know you can get away with it follows.
Dennis has his conscience tested when the investigation of the shooting begins.
Zyric (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is a baseball player with pro scouts sitting down with him and his dad, people who ask about his “character” and maturity. The shooting of Darius, and the endless humiliations of “stop and frisk” policing send him to the neighborhood protester/agititator (Chanté Adams) to “get involved.”
It’s all-in or don’t bother, to her. That shooting reshapes his life, too.
Green’s film loses some of its narrative thrust and drive by shifting points of view like this, with each compelling story seeming to disappear as a new one replaces it. That doesn’t mean the third act doesn’t have its pathos and power.
Seeing ordinary people get upset enough to take direct action is as inspiring here as was back when “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” when Norma Rae stood on that loom holding up a sign with one word on it — “UNION,” when sexual assault survivors flooded Washington this fall.
In our increasingly divided culture, movies like “Monsters and Men” don’t reach a broad swath of the populace, just a corner of it open to its message. Fox News will only acknowledge such a film if it is a failure, the way they devote round the clock coverage to any “retaliatory” shooting of policemen and only cover the protesters — football players included — and not the until-very-recently under-reported decades of police shootings of unarmed civilians.
But some people will see this run of good to great films of social significance and get involved themselves. And that’s the point.
Green’s film is about a tragedy, born in a time of great national stress. It’s not without its flaws, but it’s an absolutely riveting piece of movie-making, one you can be sure Jean Renoir would appreciate. And nobody had to bomb Hollywood to get them to make it.
MPAA Rating: R for language
Cast: John David Washington, Anthony Ramos, Cassandra Freeman, Kelvin Harrison Jr. Chanté Adams, Samel Edwards, Jasmine Cephas Jones
Credits: Written and directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green. A Neon release.
Running time: 1:36