Review: A Young Black Man’s Life on Trial in Overly Polished but Moving Monster

Based on the novel by Walter Dean Myers, Monster delves into the scary reality of a young Black man caught up in a murder trial, accused of being a part of a heinous crime and painted by the prosecution as a terror who should be kept off the streets. Just 17, Steve Harmon (Kelvin Harrison Jr. of Waves and Luce) is an average teenager in New York City; he lives a comfortable life with his parents (Jeffrey Wright and Jennifer Hudson) in a beautiful brownstone in a neighborhood he knows like the back of his hand. On the way to and from school, the budding filmmaker who’s always looking for the light in every scene, encounters the peers he grew up with who haven’t followed as straight and narrow a path as he has; while he’s got every advantage to become a successful, contributing member of society, the guys hanging out on the basketball court or outside the bodega are headed somewhere else entirely, their lives of petty crime and gang beefs likely to catch up with them. It all sets the stage for the drama ahead, making Steve’s journey into the court system that much more harrowing as we’re forced to acknowledge that justice isn’t always blind.

Image courtesy of Netflix

Directed by Anthony Mandler (and adapted by Colen C. Wiley and Janece Shaffer), Monster originally premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. In one of the longer delays between festival premiere and wide release (perhaps not entirely due to a pandemic that wouldn’t even start until two years later?), the film is finally finding audiences via Netflix, where it quietly landed on the streaming service this week. A worthy enough exploration of the trauma inflicted on our young Black men when they are consumed by a corrupt and disorganized “justice” system, there’s nevertheless something a bit too polished about this particular version of the story, not to mention an ending that, while warranted, ultimately only serves to undermine the tension the film had spent the preceding hour and a half building. Whatever its shortcomings, the film features compelling early performances from some of the most impressive young actors of our time; John David Washington has since rocketed to movie stardom in Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster Tenet, Jharrel Jerome won an Emmy for his gut-wrenching performance in When They See Us; and even star Harrison Jr. has moved on to star as Fred Hampton in the Oscar-nominated The Trial of the Chicago 7

The majority of Monster is spent in the courtroom as Steve is on trial for the murder of a bodega owner, killed by a gunshot from his own gun during a struggle as two masked men tried to rob the store. Steve had just left the store moments before the incident, identified by a witness as being in the vicinity and ultimately arrested and charged alongside an acquaintance, King (ASAP Rocky), for the crime. We get to know Steve directly from the source, as he narrates much of the film and takes us back to his life before the arrest, participating in his high school’s film club and falling for a pretty young classmate. It’s an idyllic city life for a teen with his whole life ahead of him, making this jolting turn of events that much more tragic; Harrison Jr. movingly emotes the vulnerability, fear and confusion inherent in such dramatic circumstances, ensuring audiences sympathize with this promising young man whose life has already been turned upside down and may just be changed forever, depending on how a jury of his peers decides to see things.

If a film like Monster changes even one person’s mind next time they’re tempted to rush to judgment or hold someone’s long-distant past mistakes against them, then it could be considered a success; it is certainly trying hard to do just that, and a few moments of emotional resonance do elevate to something quite effective. But overall, the film’s insistence on clichés (the bulldog prosecutor, the bad-guy gang leader, the mousy, nosy old lady neighbor) and a narrative that hews too close to the predictable mean that this film adaptation doesn’t do much to break out into a more meaningful whole.

Monster is now streaming on Netflix.

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Lisa Trifone
Lisa Trifone
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