Sundance Award Winner ‘Monsters and Men’ Is a Complicated Look at Race and Policing in America

Anthony Ramos and John David Washington appear in Monsters and Men by Reinaldo Marcus Green, an official selection of 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Photo by Alystyre Julian. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

There is a long take in Reinaldo Marcus Green’s debut feature Monsters and Men which marks the end of the first segment in its triptych structure and encapsulates the film’s ongoing theme of reflection. Manny Ortega (Anthony Ramos) is interrogated by police after publishing a video that proves a group of cops killed a black man without a real motive. The young Latino witness (loosely based on Ramsey Orta, who filmed Eric Garner’s death in real life) is treated as a suspect. He approaches the one-way mirror as if looking directly at someone. On the other side, Dennis (John David Washington), a black police officer who doubts the veracity of his coworkers’ claims, stares directly into Manny’s eyes. For a second, it’s as if these two men are connected by the realization that they live in a country that judges them equally, regardless of which side of the mirror they are standing on.

Green returned to the Sundance Film Festival three years after his short Stop garnered attention for its nuanced treatment of the police’s racial biases playing out in predominantly black and Latino neighborhoods. The final story in Monsters and Men is directly inspired by the protagonist in Stop, a black teenage athlete returning home from practice is stopped by police without any apparent reason. Although played by different actors, Kelvin Harrison Jr. in the feature and Keishawn Butler in the short, the character’s name is Zyrick in both versions. He is a bright and dedicated individual with a promising future who is confronted with a system that makes no distinction between him and actual criminals. Succeeding is a way out but not a solution.

Set in vibrant Bed-Stuy, Monsters and Men is an ambitious production that earned Green the U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for Outstanding First Feature. The half-Puerto Rican and half-African-American director shot the film in September and delivered the final product in time for the festival, but he had started writing the screenplay not long after Stop premiered in Park City in 2015. His film was the only fiction feature in competition directed by an US-born Latino in the entire festival. NEON, the rising distributor behind the Oscar-nominated I, Tonya, acquired rights to Monsters and Men during Sundance, ensuring a theatrical release later this year. Still reeling from all the good news and great reception, Reinaldo Marcus Green talked to us about casting Anthony Ramos in a lead role, the crucial conversation that forced him to begin writing, and the useful advice he got from Robert Redford.

UPDATE 9/27/2018: Monsters and Men hits theaters in NY and LA on September 28 and expands to more cities on October 5.

On the Conversation That Led Him to Make Monsters and Men

“I’m half-Puerto Rican and half-African-American… I grew up in a household where I had both, so I was able to tap into both cultures in a way that maybe someone else couldn’t.”

I had a short film called Stop that premiered at [Sundance Film Festival] in 2015. One of the actors in the film is a friend of mine, and he’s also a New York City police officer. We made that film for $500 bucks, so we were so excited to get to Sundance. We were sharing a condo together, and celebrating the film. One night at 2 o’clock in the morning, we started talking about the Eric Garner case. We’re both from Staten Island. I used to deliver pizzas in that neighborhood, so I knew the area very well, and he’s an officer from Staten Island. We just started talking about that tape, kind of causally, and we just saw two different things on the tape. I saw a guy who should be alive, point blank. Simple. He saw it a little differently. Although he thought it was unfortunate the guy was dead, he saw somebody who was resisting arrest. It wasn’t out of animosity or anger, that’s just literally the way he saw the tape. I was like, “Brian, just because he was resisting, that doesn’t mean he should be dead.” So one thing lea to another, and it became a very heated discussion, not that we were going to get into a physical fight, but the point where it was very awkward. This is someone I’ve known my whole life. He’s a friend of mine, he’s in my film, he’s a liberal, and he’s a good guy, so that conversation is really what led me to decide to make a feature film. I had no intention of making a feature out of my short film. I didn’t know where to start, but that conversation was like, “Ok, that was a perspective I hadn’t heard that close before. I know people feel that way, but I didn’t know that he felt that way. I didn’t know that. Wow, this is closer than I thought.”

On The Divide Between the Latino and African-American Communities

I’m half-Puerto Rican and half-African-American, so that divide is in my own house. I remember that my Puerto Rican grandmother didn’t approve of my African-American father, so it was a struggle for them to get married, and that struggle might have destroyed my parent’s marriage. It is true, often times we’re like, “You’re Dominican,” or “You’re Puerto Rican,” or “You’re Mexican,” so we’re pit against each other. We are all the same, we’re from the same blood, we all can find similarities with one another, and look at each other and support one another. To me, I was just bringing my own personal connection to that into the film. I grew up in a household where I had both, so I was able to tap into both cultures in a way that maybe someone else couldn’t.

On Making a Triptych Film That Isn’t Like Crash

I think the most difficult part was sticking to my vision for the film. A lot of folks wanted more connections, they wanted this chapter to overlap or things like that. Listen, it’s not the first time that you’ve seen a triptych structure, so I was trying to stay away from certain tropes, certain things that I’ve seen before that didn’t feel natural to me. For instance, Crash is Crash. The more I was doing that what people told me, and because it’s about police and people of color, the more it felt like it was going to become Crash, and I didn’t want to be Crash. Crash had already been done, and that’s a great movie. You’ve got Fruitvale Station, which has been done. If I just took that and just made the same story, why are we just watching the same thing again? I think the hardest part was that.

On Robert Redford Helping Him Find the Core Meaning of His Film

I took this to the Director’s Lab in June, and I have a funny Robert Redford story. Robert Redford came to my set. We had to shoot five scenes from the film at the lab, and one of the scenes was the mirror scene that we see in the film. Robert said to me, “What does the mirror mean in the movie?” He just asked a question, and I didn’t really have an answer. I had written it into the script, but I didn’t have a profound answer for Robert Redford. He said, “Well, if you find the answer to that, then that’ll be the answer to your film.” I just kept thinking about reflections. We all have good and bad in us. We’re all imperfect. We’re just human. Dennis, although he’s on one side of the glass, he grew up in that community, he knows exactly what that guy is facing and going through, and for a second, he has to almost look at himself. Although the other guy cant see him on the other side of the glass, it’s really a self -reflective moment; I am him, he is me. That’s sort of a theme that is rolled out throughout the rest of the film, that’s what we carry the rest of the movie with, that sort of rally call. I am my other fellow human. We all have to look at ourselves and try to reflect, “I’m looking at you and you’re looking at me.” There’s a common thread amongst all of us, especially amongst men of color. We have a responsibility to look out for one another.

Director Reinaldo Marcus Green. Photo by Marie Constantinesco
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On Anthony Ramos’ Personal Connection to the Story

Anthony Ramos is so explosive. He’s so energetic and deep, and he’s so young. He’s got youth on his side. I believe every word he’s saying. We had a Skype conversation, and he told me he was from the Bushwick projects, and he was a baseball player. It was interesting, because he was a baseball player, just like the Kelvin character. His own personal background was so close to what I had written. It was like he was jumping off the page. When I met him, I was like, “Oh my god, he’s very interesting looking, he’s a fresh face we haven’t seen before, “ so I just thought of him as a discovery, and obviously he’s got a boatload of talent. He’s also a musician, he just dropped an EP, he’s performed here at Sundance, and he is just an incredibly gifted and talented actor, but he’s raw. He’s just got it. You don’t have to make that up. I think he’s also got personal connections to the story. If you grow up in the projects, you know what it’s like to grow up in a police state. You know who’s a police officer, you know who’s on the corner, and you just see the same faces over and over again. They just drive through the projects. That’s just what they do. Its just part of growing up in a place where there’s a heavy police presence. I think he very much responded to the script. I saw it in his eyes and his heart.

On Anthony Ramos Almost Turning Down Godzilla to Make Monsters and Men

He was literally telling me that he was ready to turn down Godzilla to do my movie, and I was like, “Don’t turn down Godzilla! I don’t know if this movie is going to get made!” He was able to do both. He was traveling back and forth between Godzilla and our movie just to make it work. He just brought such a genuine truth to the character. He reminded me of a young Benicio Del Toro when I was looking at him and he’s not saying anything, I was like, “Wow, this kid is special.” I feel very fortunate to have him in the film.

On the Brave People Who Shoot the Videos Documenting Police Brutality

Being from Staten Island, I started doing research about folks that had been persecuted because of these videotapes. Then I started looking at other cases around the country. The guy who filmed Walter Scott did not want to come forward with that video, and if he doesn’t come forward, it’s the same story that we’ve heard before, which is, “He reached for my taser,” or, “He reached for my gun,” and there’s nothing we can do about it. That cop walks free, and the guy’s dead, and that’s the typical story. These videos really started getting me thinking that this is an interesting way into the cyclical nature of these things. These are not isolated events: Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, these things are happening all over the country, and vice versa, to the police officers who are being attacked because of these tapes. You have Brooklyn police officers, you have Baton Rouge; all over the country you see the backlash from the community because of these situations. My film kind of touches on all of these things, it’s about perspective. What do we do about it? Where do I put a stake in the ground, how do I talk about these things that we feel we know everything about? It was really about following the lives of these innocent men. These are folks that are just ordinary people. We often forget about the people in the communities that are affected, and I thought this tape is a way to really engage in a personal story about people’s lives that are uprooted by these tapes. Of course, the movement is there, and it’s been there all along.

Reinaldo Marcus Green accepts the U.S. Dramatic Competition Special Jury Prize for Outstanding First Feature for Monsters and Men at 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Photo by Brandon Cruz. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.
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On How Education and Success Don’t Make People of Color Immune

I grew up as an athlete. I had two Major League tryouts, and I didn’t make it, so I’m a failed baseball player turned filmmaker. Growing up in a single parent household with my brother, sports were an outlet for us to stay out of trouble. We grew up in a fairly decent neighborhood, but right across the street was not so good. I went to school with people who are on death row now. We went to school with violent criminals. I played football with kids that are literally spending life in prison. I lived on the other side of the tracks, but in school we were all in the same life. Sports were our way to get out of trouble. It was my father’s way of saying, “My kid is not going to end up like these other kids.” But with the same skin color, you’re not immune to those things. If I’m walking down the street at night, nobody knows that I have a Master’s Degree. They don’t care. I’m just another kid in the hood. For me, my skin color didn’t separate me, it didn’t make me immune from those things, so when I saw these things happening I though, “This is me. I am that kid.” I had a father who made sure that I wasn’t going to get into trouble, and he was there every step of the way. There are kids who don’t grow up with parents, don’t have a mother or a father, so the only thing they can do is hang around the block because they don’t have an after school activity. Kelvin was really that story. This kid who has everything going for him, who is on the right track, is not immune. His skin color doesn’t give him any immunity just because he’s got high baseball prospects. If you ask LeBron James, I’m pretty certain he’s been through this, and this is why he wears the shirt, “I Can’t Breathe.” He doesn’t wear that because he’s immune to it, because he’s King James. I think a lot of folks of color can really relate to these issues that are happening in the community, because there is no separation, we are all one.

On Film Being His Form of Activism

I question myself a lot. “What do I do? Am I supposed to have a picket sign and be on the front lines? What is my form of activism?” I want to do something, I want to help, but sometimes the problems feel so big, and you don’t know where to start. This film, for me, was saying, “Okay, I can do something, I have a voice.” It’s like voting, a lot of people are like, “Oh my vote doesn’t matter,” but I think it’s true that your voice does matter, and that one vote could make a difference between a Blue State and a Red State. I was like, “This movie is my vote. I’m going to say a little something. I’m going to do my part.” This film is my form of activism, however small. I think that’s really what it’s about. It’s about baby steps. It’s about talking about it, continuing the dialogue, and trying to open people’s minds to an issue that really needs to be talked about. It’s happening all around us, we can’t turn a blind eye to the things that are happening to our people and our community. It’s important for us to just stay engaged as a community, the Latino community, the Black community, it’s important for us to come together. As a collective, we’re much stronger, and we need to support one another.

On People of Color Owning and Not Renting Their Stories

I made the film because I think it’s great to have more of our faces and more of our cultures represented on screen, and behind the camera as well, more opportunities for us to be out there, to be a part of the conversation. It was proven in shows like Dear White People, it’s proven in movies like Moonlight, it’s been proven in a lot of shows, that there’s a desire for us on screen. It’s not new. There’s a real desire and a demand for us more than ever. So for the young filmmakers out there that are making stuff, there are plenty of opportunities, you just have to create them. We just have to continue to create and be the authors: creating and writing. If you own something, you can do whatever you want. If you don’t own it, it’s just hard because you’re always going be renting your entire life. I always wanted to own my house. I didn’t grow up in a house where my parents owned it. For me, owning my script, being the author, providing opportunities for people of color in the Latino and Black community, that to me is where I want to stay, and what I want to continue to do. It doesn’t stop with film. The film is just a conduit to a larger conversation. It’s about bringing people together. There are movements happening all over the country. How do we bring those groups together to make more change, and then make more movies! Of course, I love film, and I think I want to stay there and hopefully have a long-lasting voice in this industry.