Netflix's Must-Watch 'Monster' Shakes Up the Courtroom Drama
How you respond to the end of this complicated case will tell you a lot about yourself.
Three years after its debut at the Sundance Film Festival and a short-lived name change to All Rise, Monster has finally landed on Netflix. Based on Walter Dean Myers’ 1999 novel of the same name, the legal drama shoehorns the viewer into a horrifying, yet all-too-familiar, scenario in which a Black teenager named Steve Harmon (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is facing decades in prison while on trial for a crime that he swears he hasn’t committed.
Thus, Monster will almost immediately provoke a visceral reaction from viewers who may feel like they’ve seen this story a million times. Movies that follow Black and brown people’s traumatizing experiences within America’s criminal justice system don’t tend to end well, and at first, director Anthony Mandler's debut feature does seem like yet another one of those movies that merely exists to enrage you or bog you down with the reminder—as if any of us need one—that justice isn’t as blind as it should be.
However, it’s imperative to stick around to see Monster gradually unfold. As Steve's ties to a neighborhood acquaintance James King (Rakim "A$AP Rocky" Mayers) are revealed, Monster transitions into a cinematic exercise that tests the caveats of one’s perspective. From the moment the prosecutor (Paul Ben-Victor) delivers his opening statement and declares that the jury should behold Steve as a monster, the film strategically challenges our perceptions of the criminal justice system and those—both innocent and guilty—who are enthralled in it.
While doing so, it becomes clear that Monster is an absolute masterclass in storytelling. Meta-framed through the lens of filmmaking, Steve’s journey is presented through screenplays and monologues and even deconstructed by flashbacks to lectures from his film teacher (Tim Blake Nelson). Monster is also told through a nonlinear narrative structure that's both stylish and thought-provoking, as motifs such as trust versus mistrust and the perception of truth are cleverly explored through parallel scenes from Steve’s past and his present.
In addition to its conceptual premise, Monster boasts a star-studded cast, including Jennifer Hudson (soon to be Aretha Franklin in the upcoming film Respect), John David Washington (Tenet, BlacKkKlansman), Dorian Missick (Southland), Jeffrey Wright (Westworld), and Nasir “Nas” Jones (Belly). On paper, that ensemble looks great, and on screen, they’re even better. Harrison Jr. (Luce, It Comes at Night, Waves) and Mayers (Dope) both bring a powerful authenticity to their roles, but the smaller contributions throughout the film are just as noteworthy.
Hudson, who plays Steve’s mother, and Washington, who plays King’s cousin Richard "Bobo" Evans, both give impressive performances that could have shined even brighter given more screen time, and their characters offer great foils to the jury’s perception of Steve. Bobo provides a conventional take on what many might assume the human embodiment of guilt and monstrosity looks like. Mrs. Harmon, on the other hand, stresses the importance of church and prestige, providing a "respectable" understanding of innocence.
The only problem is that Steve, like many people, falls somewhere in between. The grey area between guilt and innocence, humanity and monstrosity is what makes Monster so intriguing and refreshing. This courtroom drama is not a movie that’s content with simply showing you how fucked up America’s criminal justice system is. It’s far more interested in flipping the script, turning its audience into off-screen members of the jury, and making them take a stance on whether they deem Steve to be a monster.
Monster is a movie that should be studied, debated, and, most importantly, watched with bated breath. Because after the final scene is overtaken by a blinding white light, Netflix's new cerebral film will demand your own final verdict as Steve asks aloud, "What do you see when you see me?" Whatever conclusion you draw about him and his situation might just tell you a lot about yourself.