A movie that walks as softly as Monsters and Men does — especially on a subject as incendiary as police violence — may sound like a missed opportunity. But Reinaldo Marcus Green’s quiet drama still carries its own kind of big stick, even if the story’s impact is ultimately muffled by his meditative, low-key style.
As the movie opens, a young black man (Blackkklansman’s John David Washington) sits behind the wheel, happily bopping to Al Green on the radio. A siren whoops behind him; his whole body tenses and goes still. It turns out he’s a cop too, and the white officer lets him go, but the ugliness of the moment doesn’t dissipate.
Blocks away, an off-duty doorman (Anthony Ramos) is pulling out his phone to capture a beloved local street vendor caught up in a law-enforcement scuffle outside a Brooklyn bodega. Letting the footage go public means risking his brand-new job and the safety of his pregnant girlfriend and little daughter; keeping it private means letting the truth lie with the NYPD’s official line. In a third segment, a promising high school athlete (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) finds himself distracted from his college-baseball dream by a growing social consciousness, and the need to do more than just stand on the sidelines.
Decisive, sometimes explosive moments do come as the story unfolds, but Green (best known for short films like Stop and Stone Cars) finds his strongest revelations in small, telling gestures: The look of shock and humiliation turning to stony endurance as a boy is stopped and frisked on his way home from school; the way Washington’s character toggles between private doubt and fierce pride at the uniform he wears. (It’s interesting to watch the actor take on another racially charged cop role after the crackling hijinx of this summer’s Blackkklansmen, recast in such a drastically different tone.)
The movie is shot with a sort of verité intimacy, alternately dreamy and stark, and the plot itself veers on impressionistic; not every thread in its loose tapestry comes together. Still, Green illuminates his characters with care and subtlety, allowing them to live inside shades of grey that a black-and-white world rarely allows. B