In the opening scene of the new Netflix drama Monster, Steve Harmon, played by Kelvin Harrison Jr., narrates, “What do you see when you look at me?” “Boy? Artist? Outsider?”
Monster vividly illustrates the racial injustices embedded in the criminal justice system of America, and with stunning clarity, the film is truly a reflection of how society views people of color.
Based on a 1999 novel by Walter Dean Myers, Monster chronicles the story of Steve Harmon, a 17-year-old Harlem native attending a prestigious film school. His life is completely changed when he’s charged with felony murder. His parents, played by Jefferey Wright and Jennifer Hudson, are forced to accept the reality that their son’s once promising future now hangs in the balance, hedging towards despair.
Monster also stars Jennifer Ehle, John Washington, and rappers A$AP Rocky and Nasir “Nas” Jones. The film is also produced by Wright and Nas, as well as John Legend.
BET.com spoke with Wright, Hudson, and Harrison Jr., about portraying the challenges of being Black in America, the timeliness of the film, and the meaning behind the film's title.
BET.com: Kelvin, you captured all of the nuances of being in the position that your character Steve was facing. He was in a fight for his life. How did you prepare for such an intense role?
Kelvin Harrison Jr.: Wow. It was my first time being in New York so I just got on the train. I had my camera, and I kind of just existed in the place I was at in my life. I think you have to just be honest with yourself. I was like, I really don't know who I am right now. So the first thing I always ask myself with any role is, ‘Why did I get cast? What did the director see in me to play this part?’
You have to bring a bit of yourself into every role, and I had to come to terms with the fact that I was trying to figure out what I wanted in life. That's exactly what Steve was going through. He's trying to deal with the fact that he’s uncomfortable with his privilege. He doesn’t know how much that is and he doesn’t know how much it actually helps him or hurts him. Then, to have to go to prison, go on trial, and have people point their finger at you and tell you who you are when you're still trying to define that for yourself is not easy. I just had to be, you know, honest with myself.
BET.com: Watching the film, it reminded me that the criminal justice system rarely treats young, Black kids like children. Why do you think it’s so easy or Black kids to get caught up in situations like Steve does in the film?
Kelvin Harrison Jr.: It’s fascinating because it's the justice system and the media really likes to bunch us all together as one. Every time we step outside, how am I supposed to process everyone's perception of me? How does that allow me to judge my brothers and sisters as well? We're all a victim to the system that was designed to enslave us, imprison us, all in the name of making money.
When I read the script, I thought to myself, ‘it's a shame.’ We really need to remind ourselves of our humanity and my character, I mean he's putting pop rocks in his pocket. He's harmless, you know what I mean? Like, my guy is not up to no good. He's just trying to figure out what he's trying to do in life.
Jennifer Hudson: Wow. With all that’s happening with race and police, I think this role was important and personal. As a Black woman and being a mother to a Black son, it’s even more important to be seen today. When it comes to art, I like to do things that I feel are real, honest, and just true to life.
BET.com: In your role as Mrs. Harmon, you embody the powerlessness that Black parents, especially Black mothers feel when their children are up against the system. Do you feel your character represents all those Black women who have endured the same?
Jennifer Hudson: Most definitely. The Harmons were an “ideal” Black family with a son who had so much talent and potential. With all that going for them, they still couldn’t protect him. He still found himself in those types of scenarios and situations.
As Black parents it makes you think, 'Oh my God, what can you do?' It’s scary when you’ve done all you can to protect your children and give them options but the system still comes for them.
BET.com: To you Jeffrey, were you able to identifying with Mr. Harmon as a Black father in order to truly embody the role?
Jeffery Wright: Well, personally, it was a pretty simple process. From a character standpoint, I just thought about being a father and thought about my son. That was it. I meditated on my son and that was all I needed. This is a story about a young man trying to discover his masculinity, his Brown skin masculinity in a world, in a country that sometimes is very hostile to that.
BET.com: Lastly Jeffery, the film was originally titled All RIse. Does changing the name to Monster give the film a different meaning?
BET.com: Yes. I think Monster is a provocative title with deep meaning. Monster speaks to us all in America. I was telling someone else that sometimes that monster lives within the system itself and how that system is set up not to recognize the humanity of a young, Black boy like Steve, but he’s a child, not a monster.
Monster premiered on Netflix on May 7th.