One of the standouts of this year’s Sundance Film Festival was Reinaldo Marcus Green‘s Monsters and Men. Winner of the U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for Outstanding First Feature, this gripping drama follows the fallout of a police shooting. When Manny Ortega (Anthony Ramos) sees white police officers shoot an unarmed hustler in his Brooklyn neighborhood, he films the entire incident on his phone. But as he ponders whether to release the video (and put his family in danger) or keep this injustice to himself, Monsters and Men asks viewers to think about what it means to be silent and complicit.
Clearly speaking to current events, the project felt particularly personal to the cast and crew involved. Speaking at a Q&A after the world-premiere screening in Park City, Green pointed out that while the film asks uncomfortable questions, “We weren’t trying to preach, we were just trying to show that this is what life is like in our communities.” That was definitely true for Ramos. The Hamilton star (he’s the OG John Laurens and Philip Hamilton) has been working steadily since leaving the Broadway smash back in 2016. He’s had stints in the Will & Grace revival, starred in Netflix’s She’s Gotta Have It series, and has a role in the upcoming Lady Gaga-fronted musical A Star is Born. But he’s not forgotten where he comes from.
As he shared in that same Q&A, his own experiences dealing with the NYPD as a kid factored into his involvement with the project. When he was 16, he remembers being handcuffed by a cop while out with his family because he’d said he had no ID on him. Sitting there, handcuffed and humiliated with his relatives watching, he wondered, “1. Why did I lie? and 2. Why am I being handcuffed and treated this way?” The cop eventually let him go and said to him, “I did that to teach you a lesson.”
To hear Ramos tell it, the explanation made him snap: “At first I was like, Thank you. But then I was like, What the fuck did you just say? Teach you a lesson? You could’ve had a conversation with me! I wasn’t resisting or anything. I gave you all of my information accurately. And you could’ve just talked to me man-to-man and said, ‘Young man what you did was wrong and I hope you never do it again.’ I could’ve learned. Instead, he chose to handcuff me and humiliate me. And I will never forget that shit.” It was that experience that made him feel compelled to participate in the movie, Ramos explained. And, given the film’s warm reception at Sundance, it’s clear such righteous anger has been put to good use.
Additional reporting by Vanessa Erazo.