Steve Harmon is a good young man. He has a few close friends, is well thought of by his favorite teacher and has a healthy home life with his loving parents and younger brother. Then, he is arrested and charged with being an accomplice to an attempted robbery that ended in murder. Who is he really? Is he the person the people who know him see? Or is he the monster the prosecution paints him as?
The courtroom drama Monster (streaming on Netflix) covers a familiar, yet still all-too-necessary, subject. It is about how those involved in our justice system (police, lawyers, judges, juries) only need to see a young black man in the vicinity of a crime to assume they must be guilty. It doesn’t matter what kind of person the accused is. They become representative of everything wrong with society due to race and proximity.
Unfortunately, the biggest problem with Monster is that it does the exact same thing it is accusing cops and courts of doing, just from the other side. It shows us an outline of Steve as an aspiring filmmaker and good son/brother/friend/student. However, it never truly lets us know him, or any of the people in his orbit. It keeps the viewer at arm’s length, making this an occasionally interesting exercise, rather than a compelling exploration of this material.
Monster is based on the 1999 novel by Walter Dean Myers. From the sounds of it, is a fairly faithful adaptation. For example, parts of the novel describe events as though they are taking place in a screenplay. That is conveyed in the movie through some of Steve’s narration (such as “Interior Courtroom”). This feels like a writer’s conceit that only serves to distance the viewer from the protagonist. Maybe that wouldn’t have been an issue if he otherwise seemed like a real person. But he doesn’t. He is a symbol of a victim of systemic racism in our legal system. Just like his public defender and the prosecuting attorney are tools of it. The suspense (what little of it there is) is not centered on guilt or innocence. It is centered on whether or not the world outside of his sees him as a person or merely another black teenage criminal. Since the movie chooses not to actually look at him as a person, that turns it into a 100-minute lecture, instead of an engaging story with a meaningful message.
That is a problem caused by the heavy-handed writing/directing. It is certainly not the fault of the acting. Monster, which originally premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January of 2018, has assembled a heck of a cast. Steve is played by Kelvin Harrison Jr., who gave a fantastic performance in Waves, one of the best movies of 2019. He is really good here as well, even with the lack of nuance given to Steve. He suggests so much going on slightly under the surface (love and ambition in the flashback scenes, anger and despair in present day ones), despite the story never taking the time to explore it.
It is the same for Jennifer Ehle as his lawyer. There is clearly a lot going on in her mind, seen in her body language or the way she does or doesn’t make eye contact with Steve. While it is true that it is generally irrelevant if a lawyer believes in their client’s innocence, it seems important to this particular story to at least consider if she does. That isn’t addressed. Again, this is about ideas, not people.
The rest of the cast does the best they can. Rapper ASAP Rocky (using his real name of Rakim Mayers), a pre-BlacKkKlansman John David Washington and Jharrel Jerome are all effective as Steve’s alleged accomplices. Jeffrey Wright and Jennifer Hudson are underused as his parents. Plus, there is Paul Ben-Victor, Tim Blake Nelson and rapper Nas.
It is an impressive collection of talent. Some of them are able to produce a strong moment or two that made me contemplate what Monster was trying to say. Sadly, too often, it makes the big error our justice system does: stripping away the accused’s humanity to make it easier to fit them in a box. That is what happens to Steve Harmon in the story. The downfall of the movie about him is that it treats him the same way.
2½ out of 5
Kelvin Harrison Jr. as Steve Harmon
Rakim “ASAP Rocky” Mayers as William King
Jennifer Ehle as Katherine O’Brien
Paul Ben-Victor as Anthony Petrocelli
Jeffrey Wright as Mr. Harmon
Jennifer Hudson as Mrs. Harmon
John David Washington as Richard “Bobo” Evans
Nas as Raymond “Sunset” Green
Tim Blake Nelson as Leroy Sawicki
Jharrel Jerome as Osvaldo
Directed by Anthony Mandler
Written by Janece Shaffer and Colen C. Wiley