Good courtroom dramas keep audiences hooked into a defendant’s fight for justice. The simpler the fight, the better. Just saying.
Screenwriters Janece Shaffer and Colen C. Wiley took their cues from the young adult novel Monster, which was written in 1999 by Walter Dean Myers. He was an author who wrote over 100 children/YA books during his 45-year-career. Raised in Harlem, he was greatly affected by his urban upbringing and many of his stories reflected on inner city life and the challenges he faced as a young Black man. That’s the core of the plot line for this film, when it’s not obscured.
Steve Hammond (Kelvin Harrison, Waves) is a 17-year-old, middle-class honor student. A budding photographer at New York City’s prestigious Stuyvesant High School. He shoots photos of his surroundings and its inhabitants. A thug named William King (ASAP Rocky) becomes his muse and a relationship ensues. Steve gets pulled into King’s life of crime, an experience that crescendos with a bodega robbery where the owner is shot and killed. The naïve shutterbug becomes embroiled in subsequent arrests and a murder trial. He is devastated.
The focus should be on Steve’s predicament. Instead, too much time is placed on social inequities, racial profiling, stereotypes and the chasm between poor and middle-class Black life. All are worthy matters of concern and would be better served if they were more nuanced and less obvious. Even then, nothing beats a protagonist with one basic, immediate plight.
Director Anthony Mandler honed his skills on music videos (Jay-Z, Lenny Kravitz, Taylor Swift). Initially the cutaways to images and flashbacks are visually engaging—until they are not. His taste in composition, colors, movement, staging, etc. is nearly impeccable. Pity he lets that excessive style overpower the narrative. Mandler is far more effective at getting solid performances from his cast.
Harrison projects the inner conflict a bourgeoise adolescent would feel if he was dehumanized and shuffled into prison like a common crook. Those feelings of dread and insecurity are magnified when you consider the culpability he tries to evade. Steve: “Monsters don’t cry in the dark. That’s what I should have told them when they called me a monster.”
ASAP Rocky is so fluid as King you don’t see the acting. Jennifer Ehle (Zero Dark Thirty) makes the defense attorney sensitive yet realistic. Jeffrey Wright and Jennifer Hudson as Steve’s parents underplay their roles as monied, urbane people stumbling into the ultimate nightmare. His acting is a national treasure. She gives her best performance since Dreamgirls. John David Washington’s portrayal of King’s partner is more a cameo than a full role. He has just enough time to show how magnetic he can be.
David Delvin’s experience shooting videos for Zayn, Jennifer Lopez and Jay-Z has made him an ace cinematographer. Production designer Jeremy Reed, art director Gonzalo Cordoba and costume designer Mobolaji Dawodu (Queen of Katwe) have good taste. While editor Joe Klotz (Precious) pulls together all the clips and footage in the most tangible ways possible, but still can’t hide the excessiveness of it all.
This very complex production needed to be simpler. More cinema verité, less music video wannabe. More like the compelling urban courtroom/crime drama Crown Heights.