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September 26, 2018 at 12:00 PM EDT

Warning: EW’s NSFW clip from Monsters and Men (above) contains strong language and an act of violence.

From Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station to George Tillman Jr.’s upcoming literary adaptation The Hate U Give, contemporary filmmakers have told stories of police brutality on screen with dynamic poignancy. Inspired by an unexpectedly uncomfortable (and admittedly eye-opening) conversation with a black officer about the death of Eric Garner, however, director Reinaldo Marcus Green knew he wanted to craft a new, distinct narrative that would bring the all-too-familiar reality into fresh focus.

“Literally the hairs on my arm were standing up. It was really uncomfortable,” Green tells EW of the exchange — which involved a clashing of alternate views on the events that led to Garner’s death — that planted the seed that would blossom into his long-form debut Monsters and Men. “I didn’t see the police perspective, and I hadn’t seen that in a film…. This is a different perspective. Whether I agreed or disagreed was sort of irrelevant; It was just necessary for me to hear it.”

He describes the film as a “triptych” of three interwoven lives, a trio of seemingly unrelated men bound together by a chain reaction of events stemming from the shooting death of an unarmed black man at the hands of the NYPD. The first third of the film follows Manny (A Star Is Born actor Anthony Ramos), a young father who captures the incident on camera, while the last chunk functions as an extension of Green’s 2015 Sundance short Stop, tracing the steps of an all-star student baseball player named Zyric (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) whose life takes a drastic turn after he’s stopped and frisked by the same officer who fired the gun.

Sandwiched between them is the meat of Green’s story: A black officer, Dennis (John David Washington), balances life on the force with a young son and wife (Nicole Beharie) at home, but when a key witness in the aforementioned shooting is unjustly arrested in an attempt to silence him from speaking out against authorities, he finds himself at a crossroads between professional duty and personal conviction. It’s a struggle Green feels audiences — and perhaps Americans in general — aren’t used to seeing. And it’s one that, alongside the stories of Manny and Zyric, blend together to create a tapestry of empathy in unexpected places without losing sight of the ripple effect real-life police brutality has on tightly knit communities of color.

“We can turn on the TV and see the killings; I didn’t want to show that. I wanted to show a different side to what would be expected of a film like this,” he explains. “We made a conscious decision in this film not to see the killing, not to focus on the victim, but to focus on people whose lives were affected by the image. For me, that was a way for me to deal with it,” Green explains, noting that the film offered a way for him to explore alternative perspectives as he came to terms with his own past experiences with locker room racism as a half-Puerto Rican, half-black high school athlete during his formative years on Staten Island. “When you watch a video like [the death of] Philando Castile and you see his girlfriend who taped it and the young girl screaming in the backseat, that’s what I remember…. I had that image in my head, like, where’s she? Where’s that young girl? Where’s the girlfriend who’s life has been ripped apart after that person was killed right in front of her eyes?”

Getting there was a process that involved introspection and a deep dive into his personal network, as Green — a former kindergarten teacher and talent acquisitions director on Wall Street before studying filmmaking at New York University in 2012 — wrote Monsters and Men with strokes of the neighborhoods he remembers from his youth. Like Manny, Green has Puerto Rican blood in his veins, while his father, like Dennis, worked as a New York City law enforcer. It’s his forward-facing product, however, that occupies singular space amid the recent surge of socially conscious projects made by minority filmmakers.

“I have seen Blindspotting, BlacKkKlansman, and Sorry to Bother you, all three very different films…. I want to say we’re all trying to get at a very similar sort of thing that we need to do something about this current situation and this current climate,” he says. “We’re all on the same team…. I’m throwing a pass to BlacKkKlansman in the end zone. However we move the needle is it. There’s never one way to talk about anything…. I’m rooting for those films, I think they’re all trying to get at very similar things in their own way.”

“I think that’s a beautiful thing,” Green finishes, adding that he didn’t set out to make a “preachy” film with Monsters and Men, but he’ll gladly accept the role of educator once again should his well-rounded freshman feature spark positive change. “It’s a great time for black cinema and for Latino cinema, and the more voices we can call to these kinds of films and this kind of storytelling, the merrier.” 

Monsters and Men opens Sept. 28. Watch EW’s exclusive clip from the film above.

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