Music clip director Anthony Mandler spent 18 years making videos for artists such as Nelly Furtado, Eminem and Rihanna. The courtroom drama MONSTER! MONSTER? made his film debut in 2018. Three years later it reached the streaming service Netflix without a theatrical release. We’ll reveal in our review whether we would have liked to see the story in the cinema.
OT: Monster (USA 2018)
Steve Harmon (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) is a 17-year-old, very talented student who would like to make films after graduation. But his world and that of his parents (Jeffrey Wright, Jennifer Hudson) suddenly falls apart when he is accused of murder. Steve is said to have been present during a fatal attack on a kiosk owner and was largely responsible for the victim’s death. This is also how Steve’s alleged accomplices describe it. When the lawyers and jury seem to have already reached their verdict, it is up to Steve and his determined lawyer (Jennifer Ehle) to convince the court that their client was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time…
As users of the streaming service Netflix recently had access to Anthony Mandler’s feature film debut “Monster! Monster?”, the information about the courtroom drama could be confusing at first. The VOD giant with the red letters listed the film under new releases, saying in advance that the film was made “exclusively for Netflix”. Nevertheless, the streaming service states that the year the production was created was 2018. This year it finally celebrated its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. So are we dealing with a brand new Netflix original or “just” the new addition of one that isn’t available at all? so new film? Let’s clear things up quickly: “Monster! Monster?” is actually already three years old, but has never seen the inside of a cinema since then and was transferred to the Netflix portfolio last year after Entertainment Studios gave up the rights it acquired in April 2019 to the competition. Netflix renamed the film originally titled “All Rise” to “Monster” (in this country it is called “Monster! Monster?”) and has now finally released it to the general public. Why such a struggle over the rights to use the material (and such a long one at that)? We do not know it. It is for enjoyment, or rather: appreciation of “Monster! Monster?” hardly relevant either. Although one would assume that the film would have been a lot more snappy if it hadn’t been made in 2017, but a few years later. The topics discussed in it are simply far too current and explosive for that.
Steve Harmon (Kevin Harrison Jr.) is in custody on suspicion of murder.
Music video director Anthony Mandler is not the first filmmaker to address the unfair treatment of African Americans in the US justice system. On Netflix alone, “When They See Us,” an entire series, deals with a particularly memorable case of racism against a group of young people who were then innocently sent to prison for many years. In the cinema, Michael B. Jordan recently took on the role of the African-American lawyer Bryan Stevenson, whose main focus was to protect unjustly imprisoned black people from the death penalty. “Just Mercy” is also based on a true story – that of Bryan Stevenson, who is still active as a lawyer and civil rights activist today. “Monster! Unlike “When They See Us” and “Just Mercy”, “Monster?” is a purely fictional work. But the topics discussed there, in particular the view of the predominantly white members of the judiciary, which is contaminated by racism and prejudice, towards the African Americans accused in this case, are more relevant than ever – not just since the trial of the century surrounding the violent death of George Floyd, which was heard a few weeks ago. “Monster!” Monster?” inherent anger towards the system does not stop. Based on the script by Cole Wiley and Janece Shaffer (both newcomers), the filmmaker, who has been involved in over 100 music videos – including for Lenny Kravitz, Rihanna and the Black Eyed Peas – takes the entire perspective of the Black community portrayed here and tells one Movie for you and from them; ergo: from their perspective.
“,Monster! Monster?’ is a purely fictional work. But the topics discussed in it, in particular the view of the predominantly white members of the judiciary, which is contaminated by racism and prejudice, towards the African Americans accused in this case, are more relevant than ever – not just since the trial of the century concerning the violent death of George Floyd, which was heard a few weeks ago.
However, the narrative structure used for this is only of limited benefit to the story. “Monster! Monster?” basically tells two stories in parallel. On the one hand, there are the events of this complex legal battle in court, for which Steve’s lawyer Maureen O’Brien engages in heated debates with the other side, who is convinced from the outset of her client’s guilt. The film also follows the preparations for the hearings in the courtroom, O’Brien’s formulation of a strategy and her intensive conversations with Steve, who not only constantly protests his innocence to her, but also lets her directly share his sometimes extremely painful experiences behind bars . The part in court and behind prison walls is immediately the most intense of “Monster! Monster?”. He makes the effects of racism on its victims most tangible. If he is convicted, the already tormented Steve will have to endure the torment of his pre-trial detention for many more years. His promising prospects as a young filmmaker: buried. Kelvin Harrison Jr. (“Waves”) is truly captivating and portrays the innocent who was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time between rebellious defiance and stoic calm. With every visit from his lawyer, his once cheerful facial features become more and more petrified, until the time in prison seems to have sucked all the joy of life out of him.
Steve (here with Nasir “Nas” Jones) tries to get through his time in prison relatively unscathed.
The other part of “Monster! Monster?” – and unfortunately also the much less successful one – deals with the events before the actual act. The authors not only reconstruct the fatal attack on a supermarket owner, but also meticulously work out the school and private environment of their protagonist Steve. They portray the young student as an ambitious but above all charismatic film lover. We see him in loving interactions with his parents and in conflict with himself when he tries to defend the privileges of an elite student in front of his envious acquaintances on the street in Harlem. Meanwhile, we don’t learn too much about the people Steve prefers to stay away from because they are either criminals or treat him unfavorably. Even if that wouldn’t be unimportant considering the crime itself. Instead, everything focuses on portraying Steve as a model student, who is even characterized as an absolute role model by his professor during his trial. It is very irritating how fervently those responsible try to smooth over every corner and edge of their main character in advance obedience, just so that there is never a hint of mistrust. Any hint of “And what if it was him?” nips the calculating production in the bud. Pleasant music and poetic, postcard-worthy images (camera: David Devlin, “Semper Fi”) ensure that the contrast between the idyllic life of a model student and the torment behind bars appears as great as possible. The actual issue of racism is not only bad when those affected are really good people with a sparkling clean slate. But perhaps the true scope of the conflict becomes clear to the story from such a perspective still a little clearer..!?
“It is very irritating how fervently those responsible try to smooth over every corner and edge of their main character in advance obedience, just so that there is never a hint of mistrust.”
Anthony Mandler’s production makes no secret of the fact that “Monster! Monster?” doesn’t want to be understood as a thriller. At no point do the makers create tension around the question of the perpetrator. The fact that half of the film takes place in court could also give the wrong impression, as the legal details of the US legal system are only marginally covered in the 98 minutes of the film. What “Monster!” Monster?” is actually much bigger than this one process. And the stage is not a courtroom, but exists everywhere. At least on a small scale, Anthony Mandler’s film makes it tangible how easily structured racism could destroy the life of every (African-American) person from one day to the next. It’s just a shame that the creative people themselves apparently weren’t fully aware of the significance of their story. Your film could have been so much more…
Conclusion: “Monster! Monster?” is a pleasantly staged film about a young man who is wrongly accused of murder as a result of structural US racism against African Americans. Lead actor Kelvin Harrison Jr. makes his character’s emotional torment palpable at all times. Unfortunately, the script spends more time explaining why it is particularly bad for this one person with a clean slate to fall victim to such a case, instead of freeing itself from this one fictional example and tackling the problem in its entirety.
“Monster! Monster?” is now available to stream on Netflix.