Reinaldo Marcus Green’s probing drama “Monsters and Men” could easily get lost in a crowd of movies about police-initiated violence and the Black Lives Matter movement — between its Sundance Film Festival stablemate “Blindspotting” and the big studio entry “The Hate U Give.”
That would be a shame, because Green, as writer and director, takes on a police shooting from several different angles. Each is fascinating and powerful on their own, and together the results are shattering.
The movie begins with a white New York police officer shooting an unarmed black man who was selling loose cigarettes outside a Bed-Stuy bodega. (Eric Garner, who died in a police chokehold in Staten Island, was selling loosies before he was killed.) From that incident spin out three stories about men reacting to that death, having to make a choice, and dealing with the consequences.
First is Manny (Anthony Ramos, who plays Lady Gaga’s pal in “A Star Is Born”), a Latino who witnessed the shooting, and captured the moment on cellphone video. Manny is confronted with a choice: Make the video public, or keep quiet to avoid bringing heat on himself and his young family.
Next up is Dennis (played by “BlacKkKlansman” star John David Washington), an NYPD officer who has experienced institutional racism himself. When we first see him, he’s in civilian clothes on his way to work, and he gets pulled over for “driving while black.” As the shooting case becomes a media spectacle, Dennis is eyed with suspicion both by his black friends and by white cops, even his partner (played by “Stranger Things” mom Cara Buono). Dennis must decide whether he can remain part of a system whose institutional racism always lies just below the surface.
The third figure is Zee (Kelvin Harrison Jr., from “It Comes at Night”), a high-school baseball star who experiences a political awakening when he sees Manny’s video. For Zee, the question is whether he follows the advice of his father (Rob Morgan) to stay focused on school and sports, or fans the spark of activism and join those marching in protest.
Except for a cathartic, dynamically staged final scene, Green doesn’t push these issues too forcefully. He makes a tougher choice, to let the emotions and conundrums these characters face play out quietly, not so much with loud speeches than with contemplation and thought. It’s an effective tactic, and one that makes “Monsters and Men” a moving and thought-provoking drama.
‘Monsters and Men’
Opened Sept. 28 in select cities, opens Friday, Oct. 5, at the Broadway Centre Cinemas (Salt Lake City). Rated R for language. Running time: 95 minutes.