Based on the novel written by New York Times bestselling author Walter Dean Myers, Monster focuses on the story of Steve Harmon, a 17-year-old aspiring filmmaker (portrayed by Kelvin Harrison). After becoming an acquaintance of another young man from the same neighborhood, William King (played by rapper A$AP Rocky), Steve finds himself on trial for the right to his own freedom. The film also features Dreamgirls’ Jennifer Hudson and Cadillac Records’ Jeffrey Wright as Steve’s parents, as well as Blackkklansman’s John David Washington and When They See Us’ Jharrel Jerome as participants in the robbery.
Though the film itself is a work of fiction, it does depict many true-to-life scenarios. African Americans are more likely to become incarcerated for crimes that they did not commit. This is often a consequence of taking plea deals rather than fighting to prove one’s innocence, which is presented in the film the very first time we see Steve’s lawyer, Katherine (portrayed by Jennifer Ehle), discuss his sentencing options. In some instances, the guarantee of a lesser sentence can appeal to most people on trial as they see it as less of a risk.
In cases that do proceed to trial, all too often the outcome is determined based on the biases of jurors. Chilling lines said in Monster deliver the message very clearly:
“Everything we’ve seen so far speaks to your innocence. Half that jury, despite what they told us when we picked them, decided you were guilty the moment they’d laid eyes on you.”
While watching the film, one can’t help but reflect on the many cases that have ended in a wrongful conviction–that’s to be expected in films that focus on black traumas and experiences in the American criminal justice system. However, director Anthony Mandler doesn’t give us such an easy choice as innocent or guilty—in contrast to the film’s recurring theme of black and white, the story’s conclusion leaves us feeling as though Steve is stuck in the grey area between the two.
What I love about the film is that we do not see Steve’s truth until the very end. The entire movie I found myself wondering if he was innocent. We only get glimpses of what Steve’s life is like and what kind of person he might be—not much more than what is told to the jurors themselves. This narrative structure exposes us as thinking of Steve in the same narrow terms that the justice system encourages us to consider defendants (rather than as a more nuanced and complex human being).
Because while a court of law may encourage us to imagine a Mason-Dixon line between right and wrong, oftentimes the boundary between the two is blurred. Monster challenges this simplified perspective, provoking us to reconsider the typical narrative of the justice system. For that alone, it’s well worth a watch.
Monster is available to stream now via Netflix.