Monster is an American legal drama film directed by Anthony Mandler, from a screenplay by Radha Blank, Cole Wiley and Janece Shaffer; based on the YA novel of the same name by Walter Dean Myers. It had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in 2018, and is now available on Netflix.
Just like the book, the film, uses a narration that mixes a third-person screenplay style with a first-person diary format to tell the story — through the point of view of Steve Harmon, an African American teenager. The seventeen-year-old acute student will have his world turned upside down, when he is charged with felony murder. The movie follows his coming-of-age story; from a good-natured aspiring filmmaker from Harlem, attending an elite high school, to a young adult confronting a complex legal battle that could leave him in prison for the rest of his life.
MONSTER (L-R): KEVIN HARRISON JR. as STEVE HARMON, JENNIFER EHLE as KATHERINE O'BRIEN. Cr. NETFLIX © 2021
Director Anthony Mandler has established himself as music video director, especially through his frequent collaboration with Rihanna. Monster marks his feature debut, where he proves to have great technical expertise, knowledge in film history and a profound sensitivity to human impact stories.
Steve Harmon’s narrating voice, throughout the film, parallels a screenwriter describing the scenes and actions of a film as he voices out: “Interior, Court Room, Day.” Furthermore, Mandler not only pays tribute to the languages of scripts, but also to that of filmmaking, as he displays an array of cross-fades, slow motions, tight close-ups and light effects.
MONSTER (L-R): JEFFREY WRIGHT as MR. HARMON, JENNIFER HUDSON as MRS. HARMON. CR: NETFLIX © 2021.
The cast is top-notch, not only for popularity, but in terms of raw talent: Kelvin Harrison Jr. (Ender’s Game and 12 Years A Slave), Jennifer Hudson (American singer who has also established herself in cinema with The Secret Life of Bees and Cats), Jeffrey Wright (Angels in America and Basquiat), Jennifer Ehle (The King’s Speech and A Little Chaos), Tim Blake Nelson (O Brother, Where Art Thou? and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs), John David Washington (BlacKkKlansman and Tenet), Nasir “Nas” Jones (American rapper who has also acted in films such as Black Nativity and Ticker), Rakim “A$AP Rocky” Mayers (American songwriter, who has starred as himself in films such as Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping and Zoolander 2), Paul Ben-Victor (best known for playing Greek mobster Spiros “Vondas” Vondopoulos on the HBO drama series The Wire).
The themes that are confronted couldn’t be more timely: race, discrimination, identity, peer pressure, dehumanisation, and most importantly the subjective nature of the truth. The topic is brilliantly brought to our attention during one of Steve’s film club meetings at school, where his professor discusses how the truth is perspectival. When focusing on one person’s story, all other versions are ignored, just like when a camera points in one direction capturing one character, leaving the others behind. In these regards, Mandler makes a very sophisticated reference to Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon. The Japanese Jidaigeki film from 1950 is famous for its plot device that involves several characters providing subjective and contradictory versions of the same incident.
MONSTER (L-R): KEVIN HARRISON JR. as STEVE HARMON, NASIR 'NAS' JONES as RAYMOND 'SUNSET' GREEN. Cr. DAVID DEVLIN/NETFLIX © 2021
In the same manner Steve’s story demonstrates how there is a truth in relation to the law, but also the truth of a person’s character. He should be innocent until proven guilty, but as his lawyer tells him, his plight to convince the court of his probity is more challenging as a teenager of colour. Thus, the tribunal contest begins between the various attorneys, to see who tells the truth.
The audience acknowledges how the art of filmmaking, just as much as the art of living, possesses different versions of the same story, because everyone sees things differently. There are different points of view. When Steve finally takes the stand, he has the opportunity to share his personal storytelling, that will affect the outcome of his trial and show whether he is a Monster or not.
Final Grade: A-
Here’s the trailer for the film.