When Donald Trump somehow won the presidency after waging a horrific race baiting campaign a lot of people came out and said “well this sucks, but at least we’ll get some good music and movies out of it.” That is of course a stupid thing to say given that real people are going to have to suffer in order for you to get your protest art, but, it isn’t exactly untrue that great art can emerge in response to awful situations. However, movies don’t get made overnight and it can often take a while for filmmakers to respond to what’s in the news, especially if they’re going to respond intelligently. It took Hollywood damn near five years to put out an Iraq War movie that was worth a damn and it could take just as long to get good overtly anti-Trump cinema. In fact right now we’re only just starting to see the wave of movies that were made in response to the #BlackLivesMatter movement that emerged in the wake of a series of police shootings in 2014. We saw one of these movies a few months ago in Blindspotting, an indie film that is partly about gentrification and friendship but which was also followed a man trying to process having witnessed a police shooting of an unarmed man. Now we have another pair of movies tackling this subject matter, one a rather restrained independent movie called Monsters and Men and the other a rather forceful studio movie based on a YA novel called The Hate U Give, and given the rather divergent approaches the two movies take to the subject matter I thought they would be worth looking at side by side.
The Hate You Give follows a high school girl named Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg) who lives in fictional “urban” neighborhood of Garden Heights but who attends a private school called Williamson Prep and code switches heavily when moving between the two worlds. One weekend she finds herself at a party in Garden Heights where she reunites with a childhood friend named Khalil (Algee Smith) and he offers to give her a ride home after a fight breaks out at the party. On their way they’re pulled over by a cop for suspect reasons, then things go bad and Khalil is shot by the officer after reaching for a hairbrush. Starr then needs to decide whether to testify at the Grand Jury despite pressure from various parties not to while also navigating how she will continue to move between the two worlds she inhabits.
Monsters and Men also begins with a young man who witnesses the police shoot an unarmed man but it doesn’t end with him. That young man is Puerto Rican guy in his late teens or early twenties named Manny Ortega (Anthony Ramos), who approaches the site of an arrest that seems to be going wrong outside of a convenience store and pulls out a cell phone to film the encounter. When that arrest ends in an unarmed black man being killed by the police he needs to decide whether he should stick his neck out to release the video. Soon after that the movie shifts to another character, an African American cop named Dennis Williams (John David Washington) who wasn’t involved in that shooting but does know that the cop who did the shooting has questionable attitudes and is conflicted about whether to tell that to Internal Affairs. After he comes to his decision the film shifts again, this time to a black teenager with a promising future in baseball named Zyric (Kelvin Harrison) who knew the victim of that shooting and now wants to get involved in activism despite everyone telling him this could get in the way of his sports career.
Monsters and Men’s “triptych” structure is somewhat reminiscent of some of Robert Bresson’s movies that would go from one story to the next, sometimes with a conceptual device, to explore a shared theme. This perhaps makes sense given that there are often a lot of different perspectives and responses that can come from events like this. The two characters who are clearly the most comparable to The Hate You Give’s Starr Carter are clearly the first and the third, the witness to the shooting and especially the one driven to activism by the shooting. Starr is of course more developed than both of the Monsters and Men characters owing to the fact that she has four times as much screen time as either of them and I suppose you could also compare her to the police character from that movie as well given that both are caught between two worlds.
Starr and Ortega face similar if somewhat different pressures to keep quiet about what they witnessed: Ortega deals with a pair of police who approach him on the street and give him a “what you thought you saw isn’t what you saw” kind of speech, which comes with something of a veild threat implied, Starr on the other hand has some fairly legitimate concerns that she would be looked at differently by her prep school peers, on top of that there’s a somewhat contrived threat to her from the local gang leader who is for some reason worried that she’ll testify that the deceased worked as a drug dealer in his gang despite having personally witnessed almost nothing about the operation and having seemingly little of value to offer them on that topic. It’s also not exactly clear why Starr’s testimony is so important, the main details of the shooting are all there on the dashboard camera, all she can really offer otherwise are details about how cavalierly Khalil was behaving during the shooting, which isn’t necessarily going to help the case.
The police story in Monsters and Men is almost certainly its best, in part because it gives a perspective on these things we don’t normally get, that of the black cop. John David Washington, who we just saw playing a much different kind of policeman in Spike Lee’s Blackkklansman, plays a guy who definitely isn’t in denial about the fact that African Americans are treated differently by his fellow cops. The film opens with a tense scene (the only one in the film that fits outside of its one story at a time structure) of him getting pulled over, most likely without cause, while off duty and he later tells his partner that this was the sixth time it had happened to him that year. You can also tell that the video of the shooting affects him and that he knew that the cop who did the shooting was a “bad apple” to say the least, but he is still a cop, the “blue wall” matters to him and he does have some sympathy for how officers are likely to act under pressure. There’s a particularly strong scene in this section where he’s seated at a dinner party with his wife and a pair of black friends and when the friends start talking about the cop who did the shooting in a somewhat careless and insensitive manner the “you don’t know shit about what cops deal with” rhetoric suddenly seems to come out in an almost reflexive manner.
There is also a comparable character in The Hate U Give, a police officer played by Common who is actually Starr’s uncle. He doesn’t play an overly big part in the story but he does have one scene where he sort of plays devil’s advocate and outlines the ways that the ill-fated stop earlier in the film might have given the officer some reason to be scared and that “the world’s complicated.” It’s not entirely clear whether we’re supposed to think that Starr’s response of “it doesn’t seem very complicated to me” is meant to be a legitimate takedown of what he’s saying or if it’s meant to simply be teenage rage but the subject never comes up again and the movie basically eschews such complications from there on.
The third story in Monsters and Men is probably its weakest. The kid at the center of it is very quiet and a lot of his internal struggles are only communicated through blank stares and I’m not sure the actor is quite able to pull it off. Starr, by contrast, kind of never stops talking. The film employs a first person voice-over of the worst kind which narrates pretty much every single thing about her including various things that the audience probably should have been trusted to catch onto. For example, early on Starr’s voice over feels the need to tell say something along the lines of “when I’m in Williamson I’m a different person than when I’m at home… and I hate myself because of it,” which is something that would otherwise be well communicated to the audience simply by letting them observe her behavior in the two places and connect the dots. Still, Monsters and Men probably could have given us a little more. For instance there’s a scene where Zyric is in a locker room and overhears a pair of white kids talking about the news surrounding the shooting and more or less saying that they’d do the same if they were in the cop’s position. Zyric doesn’t respond to this so much as just kind of give a blank stare for the camera to observe. In The Hate U Give Starr also has to deal with white kids who quote “blue lives matter” rhetoric in ways that probably more closely resemble the way people talk about these things on Twitter than how they talk about them in high school and Starr responds in rather dramatic fashion and talks in detail about how this makes her feel in voiceover.
“The Hate U Give goes too far and Monsters and Men doesn’t go far enough” is sort of a running theme when comparing these two movies if you haven’t already picked up on that. This even extends to the shooting scenes in the respective films. The shooting in The Hate U Give will be pretty familiar to anyone who’s been watching the news lately. It begins with an extended meeting between Starr and Khalil which is pretty much tailor made to make you like him and his friendship with Starr before the two are pulled over by the whitest looking cop you can imagine and Khalil is then pretty much instantly shot after reaching for a hairbrush. It mostly gets the job done but it’s not exactly the most inventive scene and it is about as prone to be questioned and second guessed as all the real shooting videos with those inclined to do so able to ask if the hairbrush really looked like a gun and if Khalil should have acted the way he did, etc. Monsters and Men by contrast sidesteps that entirely because it never gives you a clear view of the shooting at all. Ortega doesn’t see how the encounter begins, if the shooting is onscreen at all it happens super-fast and in the background of the scene and the film also very deliberately never replays the tape even after it’s been released to the public. I’m not exactly sure why writer/director Reinaldo Marcus Green chose this approach but I’m guessing that he was trying to emphasize that he was making a movie that was more about the ways people of color react to these all of these shootings than about the details of this particular death.
The main difference between the two movies is that Starr is essentially in the world’s most political Disney movie (it’s being released by 20th Century Fox, which isn’t part of the Disney corporation just yet, but you catch my drift) while the stars of Monsters and Men are in a movie for adults that isn’t about to dismiss harsh realities as something that “doesn’t seem very complicated to me.” Like Starr, Ortega decides to come forward with what he knows but the decision does not work out as well for him and unlike Starr Officer Williams isn’t able to bridge the two worlds he lives in and eventually has to pick a side, and like Starr Zyric finds himself driven to activism but it seems like a much lonelier road for him and it’s heavily implied that he’s putting his dreams of Major League stardom in danger by doing so. Things for Starr on the other hand do eventually more or less work out for her and she’s rewarded for doing the right thing both by the people around her and by her boost in self-realization and growth. That ending may or may not be true to life, but even a contrived Hollywood ending like that is an ending and in some ways that preferable to Monsters and Men’s perhaps deliberately frustrating habit of leaving stories just as they start to get interesting and then finally ending abruptly without even the slightest fanfare or unifying strand between the three. In many ways that movie felt like it needed a fourth story or at least some sort of montage or something that would tie the stories together a little more, instead it just kind of concludes the Zyric story and this time doesn’t move on to another and I don’t think that really worked.
Then again maybe there’s something kind of wise about how Monsters and Men just sort of leaving its characters in a morass of uncertainty about their actions, there’s something truthful about that even if it isn’t necessarily engaging cinema. The Hate U Give isn’t really interested in such uncertainty, but in some ways that’s what’s going to make it a lot more accessible and will definitely impress a certain audience that will get a lot of enjoyment out of seeing a major motion picture parrot various woke tumbler talking points out loud in direct ways that in my view are frankly kind of corny. This is a movie that climaxes with its protagonist jumping up on a car in the middle of a soon-to-turn-violent protest and shout something like “this is about Khalil’s life… and it mattered!” to a crowd that suddenly goes silent for her “inspiring” insight. It’s also a movie that ends with its protagonist stepping in front of a gun in a standoff in order to display her new understanding of Tupac’s “The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody (THUG LIFE)” phrase and win over people with love or something. It’s corny. But in some ways it’s better at being a corny movie than Monsters and Men is at being an artful movie. That’s probably why it’s going to make a whole lot of money while Monsters and Men is currently on track to leave theaters without even making a million dollars. I might not have the same respect for The Hate U Give what Monsters and Men is doing but it comes to life in a way that the other film doesn’t and is probably more successful at hitting its very specific goals. Blindspotting earlier this year also had its questionable moments but I’d probably take it over both of these, but I certainly hope that there are more #BlackLivesMatter movies to come because I don’t think any of them should be the last word on it.
Monsters and Men: **1/2 out of Five
The Hate U Give: *** out of Five