Following a lengthy delay, the film adaptation of Walter Dean Myers’ resonate novel is quietly released on Netflix, drained of all impact

By: Steve Pulaski

“In the light, during the day, it felt like a movie. This is that movie. My story, written, directed, and starring Steve Harmon,” says 17-year-old Steve Harmon (Kevin Harrison Jr.) in Monster. Based on the popular Walter Dean Myers’ novel — a ubiquitous fixture in every American library in the early aughts — the film premiered at Sundance all the way back in 2018. It struggled to find a home before seeing an unceremonious release on Netflix three years later. I’d say Anthony Mandler’s film deserved better to some extent, but the real victim is Myers, who died in 2014. Not only did he not get to see his story adapted to the big screen, his material too deserved better than the flat, clinical movie that transpired.

Steve is a bright, conscientious student at Stuyvesant High School in New York City, entranced by film and filmmaking. Any hopes at a prosperous future are tabled, however, when he’s wrongly accused of being part of a deadly bodega robbery in Harlem. We see the robbery occur in the opening minutes, with grainy closed circuit footage showing two men storming into the store, killing the clerk, and running off with money and cigarettes. It’s a wrong place/wrong time situation for Steve, who knows the suspects (rapper Rakim “A$AP Rocky” Mayers and John David Washington) from the neighborhood.

Steve is assigned a public defender in Maureen (a steely Jennifer Ehle), who is juggling dozens of cases not too dissimilar from his. Maureen is aware that in the eyes of some jurors, a young black male on trial is already guilty. She’s up against a gruff, ignorant prosecutor in Paul Ben-Victor, who paces the courtroom in that cliché manner while the soundtrack reminds us time again he is to be feared. He brands Steve as a “monster” with intent that the moniker will linger in the minds of the jury long enough to keep him in prison for years to come.

Mandler — working off a script from Radha Blank (The 40-Year-Old Version), Cole Wiley, and Janece Shaffer — flashes back and forth in time often, showing Steve as an aspiring filmmaker never too far from his trusty camera. Going into Monster, I recalled Mandler’s short film, Please Forgive Me, a promotional short attached to rapper Drake’s monstrously popular album Views from 2016. It was a lot of style with very little substance (like many of Drake’s songs, which frequently come off as personal stories of which we never get a clear picture).

Mandler has made a career out of directing music videos for the likes of Drake, Rhianna (“Disturbia”), and Taylor Swift (“I Knew You Were Trouble”). His tendency to rely on visual flourishes and idyllic cinematography (with the help of David Devlin) makes this yet another case of a film with beaming style and not a lot of substance. At its core is the idea that there are multiple perspectives on any given situation, and therein, multiple truths. Given the abundance of courtroom dramas, specifically ones revolving around racial injustice as of late, Monster offers little in the realm of earth-shattering revelations.

Consider a movie like Just Mercy, which took its time humanizing its individuals and was predicated on a host of strong performances despite a relatively formulaic structure. Monster discards an elite cast of performers, at its worst with how it mishandles Steve’s parents, played by Jeffrey Wright and Jennifer Hudson. Hudson — who is only 13 years older than Harrison Jr, mind you — is completely useless here, to no fault of her own, and where Wright’s noble father-figure is initially treated as a level-headed voice-of-reason, he’s brushed off to a brooding shell as soon as his son is locked up.

No one is granted any favors with an uneven screenplay coupled with a clunky presentation bogged down greatly by overly obvious narration. I’m truly tired of movies featuring characters spelling out what we can clearly see on-screen. The most egregious moment is when Steve tells us: “We see Steve before, riding his bike on the way to school,” as he’s…riding his bike on the way to school. The desire of the three writers to illustrate events unfolding before our very eyes distracts the viewer from the story at hand, and by the hour-mark of an otherwise fairly short 95 minutes, drains its resonate story of all impact.

Despite limited screentime, John David Washington incites fear as a local gangster the moment he takes the stand. Had Monster seen a release soon after its Sundance premiere, it would’ve foreshadowed even more greatness from Washington that followed, in films like BlacKkKlansman and Malcolm & Marie. The same for Kevin Harrison Jr, who went on to be a focal point in films like Luce and Waves. This is where I could bill Monster as yet another book-to-movie adaptation that comes 15 years too late, but that’s not necessarily true, given the current climate in which we live. Having said that, a lackluster narrative approach and an appalling lack of promotion do Myers the greatest injustice.

NOTE: Monster is now streaming on Netflix.

Grade: D+

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