Before you go giving Netflix credit for making a timely drama about racism in the American legal system, it’s worth noting that Monster was actually made back in 2018. While the film struggled to find a distributor, newbie star Kelvin Harrison Jr. found fame in Waves and The Trial Of The Chicago 7, co-star A$AP Rocky faced a real court case of his own in Sweden, and the whole world watched George Floyd get murdered in Minneapolis.
Whether or not the Black Lives Matter movement gave Monster the push it needed or not, the film stands up better in 2021 than it ever could in 2018 – still an averagely tense courtroom drama with an occasionally muddled message, but now a film supercharged with real-world relevance.
Racial injustice is nothing new, of course, and neither is putting a spotlight on the dangerously weighted scales of the American legal system, which is something Walter Dean Myers addressed in his cult YA novel way back in 1999. Finally landed in the hands of music video director Anthony Mandler (if you’ve seen a Rihanna video, you’ve seen his work), the book makes its way to the screen with the story intact but most of the interesting edges polished off.
Harrison is Steve Harmon, a geeky high school student who dreams of getting into film school until he gets arrested for his involvement in a botched armed robbery and murder. Trigger man Bobo (John David Washington, trying too hard to look scary) names Harmon as his lookout, and so does gang member William King (A$AP Rocky) and a handful of eye-witnesses – making the case pretty straightforward. The only problem is, he didn’t do it.
From the moment the bullish prosecutor (The Wire’s Paul Ben-Victor) calls Harmon a “monster” in court, the film shows us all the ways the law is stacked against Black men – criminalised, dehumanised and judged way before they ever stand trial. Throw in a few backroom deals designed to tempt convicts into shoring up shoddy cases in exchange for a few years off their sentence, and you have a whitewashed legal system that has almost nothing to do with the truth.
Mandler decides to jazz up all the talky bits of Monster with fast cuts, flashbacks and voiceovers but just ends up showing the film’s YA roots – carrying a slight whiff of a GCSE English class as he double underlines all the moral talking points and leans heavily into Harmon’s film school inspirations.
Thankfully, the cast are operating on another level. Jennifer Hudson steals the few scenes she has as Harmon’s mum, letting an excellent Jeffrey Wright (Westworld) carry most of the parental shock/horror/support as Dad. A$AP Rocky is all bottled rage and menace, Nas dials it back as a sage old cell mate handing out prison survival tips, and Jennifer Ehle (Saint Maud) grounds the legalese as the lawyer trying hard to unpick the case – but it’s Harrison who really gives the film its heart and soul. Superb as a frightened kid caught up in a nightmare he can’t wake up from, it’s easy to see why Waves and The Trial Of The Chicago 7 followed (not to mention upcoming heavy hitters like Joe Wright’s Cyrano and Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis).
As a teen’s POV of the broken legal process, Monster is pretty affecting – suitably tense, emotional and frightening – but it’s hard to shake the feeling that the film has been pitched too young to really have something worth saying. Constantly reminding us that Harmon is more than a monster, the courtroom’s other “criminals” fit far too comfortably into their own stereotypes. With a bit more of the book’s nuance, and a bit less of Mandler’s MTV editing, Monster could have done its excellent cast, and its important message, real justice.
- Director: Anthony Mandler
- Starring: Kelvin Harrison Jr., Jeffrey Wright, A$AP Rocky
- Release date: May 7 (Netflix)