Monsters & Men is the feature length directorial debut of Reinaldo Marcus Green, a native New Yorker who studied with Spike Lee at NYU’s Tisch Graduate Film School and assisted with Kasi Lemmons and Todd Solondz. Monsters is a triptych telling of a police shooting in Bedford Stuyvesant Brooklyn and how it impacts a small but loyal community.
Anthony Ramos (Hamilton, She’s Gotta Have It) stars as Manny, a close friend of a local cigarette salesman, Big D, who is murdered by a police officer on the street. Manny captures the incident on his cellphone, but the video will have consequences for the department and his family if he chooses to release it.
Kelvin Harrison, Jr. (The Birth Of A Nation, StartUp) is a promising honor student named Zyric who is on the brink of securing a baseball scholarship and his over protective single father doesn’t want anything distracting him from his goal. But as the news of Big D’s murder galvanizes the neighborhood into protest, Zyric is moved to be more than a passive observer, potentially sacrificing his future.
The film’s third act is brilliantly anchored by John David Washington (Ballers, BlacKkKlansman), who plays an officer named Dennis. The intersection of his life as a Black man in law enforcement is explored with surprising empathy as he grapples with the facts of the shooting from both sides.
BET.com spoke with Ramos and Harrison about their portrayals, what attracted them to this film and what art can do to bridge the gaps between an angry citizenry and those charged with protecting them.
How did you both become involved with the film?
AR: When I read the script Rei didn’t have money for the movie yet or anything. But I read it and I was like whatever I gotta do to be part of this film, I’m going to do it. Rei studied with Spike Lee at NYU and I think Rei was asking him do you have any recommendations for actors coming up who could play this role and Spike was like my mans, you gotta see Ramos. We Skyped and that was it. He gave me the part after we talked. I grew up in Brooklyn, the projects in Bushwick so this story was so real for me. I knew Manny. I know “Big D.” I got a cousin who was my Dennis in my life. So it was a blessing to be in this film.
KH. Rei hit me up on Facebook early in the year and I remember thinking ‘this is a film student hitting me up to be in a short film.’ But when I got my new agent this was the first script they sent me. It was the most beautiful script that celebrates the ordinary everyday people who don’t get a voice. I saw this kid and I was going through a similar moment in my own life feeling like I was an anomaly and feeling this burden to do fulfill my dreams for my parents, and not even have a voice of my own just yet. Looking at that, identifying with it and speaking with Ray on Skype and how much passion he had for the story I had to do it.
What was it like on set trying to capture all of these vantage points of a singular event?
AR: Because it was a smaller budget, it was awesome. On bigger movies sometimes there are SO MANY people on set and the director’s going back to video village and looking at the playback with like a bunch of other people and the actors let the director do their thing. But I got to be a part of the conversation with our director of photography Pat Scully and Rei about the shots, “Maybe we should try shooting it this way. Maybe the light is better here.” Being privy to those conversations. It felt scrappy and raw. There weren’t a lot of people on set. There was no ginormous star with a bunch of security. We were really pulling together to make something we thought was special.
KH: It felt like we were there for the right reasons.
What were some of your early personal experiences with the police and how did that shape what you brought to your character?
AR: I’ve been cuffed. I’ve been pinned up against the wall by the cops. I come from a line of cops in my family and I was one of the misfits that was debating them on what their job description was. Uncles, cousins. One of my closest cousins is a detective. One time I lied to an officer and told him I didn’t have my ID on me and cuffed me for 20 minutes in front of my whole family while he did a background check. Finally he took the cuffs off and said ‘I cuffed you to teach you a lesson. But you seem like a nice kid so I’ma let you go.’ He embarrassed me but I was compliant, I didn’t run away. It’s unfortunate that folks with a certain amount of power can take it a little too far sometimes and we’re left to feel like we can’t do anything about it. I’m also grateful to have all these cops in my family and be able to have civilized conversations with them about what I feel is right and wrong and hear their side of the story. Hopefully we can bridge the gap between citizens and police.
Did they ever give a compelling argument from the cops’ perspective?
AR: I think John David says this in the movie and my cousin said this almost verbatim, that when they put on that vest they don’t know if they’re going to make it back home. This is something that police officers fear when they go out into the world. It’s a real thing. John David told me he went on a ride along and some guy got shot in the neck and had blood coming out and the officer said “In the movies everyone is acting crazy but in real life you just clean it up and it’s on to the next one.” And that’s something I’m sensitive to now.
Your character Manny seemed loosely based on the man who filmed Eric Garner being killed by police, Ramsey Orta. Did you bring any of that incident to this film?
AR: The inspiration was there for sure. Definitely. But for the sake of the moment I tried to put myself in the position of this kid who went through THIS specific incident. Not only did you witness an unjust shooting, but he’s your friend who just got shot. What could possibly be going through the mind of somebody who has seen their friend get shot, they recorded it and is now faced with the decision of putting this out and giving them the truth or keeping it to myself and preserving what I have at home. I did my best to just dive into that and ask questions to my cousins. What have you seen in the streets, what kind of things have you dealt with. There are few situations more traumatic than that.
Manny and the neighborhood take to the streets but Zyric grapples with his protest. Could you relate to him?
KH: I felt like I lived a very similar life to Zyric. Your parents sacrifice so much for you to thrive. I went to this great private school and it kept me in a bubble to a certain extent where I didn’t see some of the things going on in the outside world until I stepped out on my own. It becomes this awakening where you realize you’re not exempt from this experience. I’m a Black boy in America and people actually see me this way. Now I don’t know what to do with that information. Now that I’ve done the film and gone through the steps he’s gone through, as he’s trying to find a subtle approach to honoring his father by succeeding in baseball and for me it’s doing well in acting, so my parents can feel like their work is not in vain. I want to be an activist to a certain extent but I realize it may not be like Anthony’s or John’s. Zyric’s journey is a revelation that my experience is valid. The films I choose are my form of activism.
Several other films this year are dealing with the topic of police shootings (“The Hate U Give” “Blindspotting.”) Is that coincidence or is art just reflecting more of what we’ve always seen?
AR: I’m loving art right now. People are using it to not only speak out but do it in a way that’s kind of unapologetic. We’ve been yelling at each other so let’s figure out a way to communicate that can hit people’s hearts and minds that’s different. There’s something beautiful about movies, shows and music. You can talk and get through to people in a way normal conversation can’t. I’m so excited that people are taking chances and telling the truth. People are feeling some kind of way when they leave a movie. People are feeling in the movies, which is incredible. I think when we feel it invokes action. As artists we want people to respond.
Amber Guyger, the Dallas police officer who killed Botham Jean in his apartment was fired from her job. Will making movies like this lead to action in those cases?
KH: I would hope so.
AR: I think that was a big win. Someone shot unjustly, the person who shot him should have consequences. I think art is doing that. Look at BlackKKLansman. The last fifteen minutes of that movie is one of the best things I’ve seen in all of cinema. It’s one of the most raw, in your face honest moments I think I will ever see. And we have to keep setting the bar that high in how we tell the truth within the craft. Because we have the attention of this broad group of people. You make a film or a song and it could reach millions of people. So you have to be really thoughtful and methodical about how we say what we say, but also not be afraid to just give it like it is.
KH: I also think people are more receptive now because we’re using film as an in to a conversation to seek understanding of each other. Rather than trying to manipulate each other with an agenda. Now I think films are taking a step back and not trying to project things, it’s opening up something more human ultimately.. We’re not giving you the answers.
AR: It’s awesome to give people an opportunity to ask themselves questions. We’re not going to tell you how to feel.
(Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)