As the Sundance Film Festival also functions as a type of cultural barometer for the important issues of today, its programming this year features the reoccurring theme of racial tension in America ("Blindspotting," "Sorry to Bother You," and more). A special trio of US Dramatic features look at the issue in regards to specific events, inspired by true stories or immediate reflections of today's newspaper headlines: “Monsters and Men,” “Monster” and “Burden.” These three films are also three directorial debuts, providing a glimpse at how fresh talent tackles issues that non-indies don’t often cover.
Let’s start with the most timely of the competition titles that I’ve seen, “Monsters and Men.” Reinaldo Marcus Green’s directorial debut has a hunger to feel like it’s ripped from the headlines, as if it were an epic made from news stories that very sadly all too common. But it trips over itself in its rush to be a timely epic, yearning to be more recognizable instead of nuanced.
“Monsters and Men” starts with Manny (Anthony Ramos), who witnesses, and films, the police kill a man named Darius outside a bodega in New York City. The father and husband struggles with whether or not to upload the video, given that the police have been intimidating him, and he has just started a job working security. This story works in large part because of the performance by Ramos (previously the new Mars Blackmon from Spike Lee’s “She’s Gotta Have It” remake), who provides a strong image of anxiety within this character who has so much to lose. Green’s filmmaking leans on a few cliches when it comes to dialogue (and even idyllic music cues during less stressful moments), but it’s an interesting angle to focus on the psychology of those who risk so much to get such controversial content out into the world.
This portion of the story makes way for a look into the life of a black cop, played by John David Washington (who opens the entire movie by being pulled over). This becomes a mental debate, with him later having a conversation with friends about how he feels about Darius being killed, especially when recognizing his own tensions about being afraid while on the job. But while this passage provides a conflicted character, “Monsters and Men” still lacks a dimension to make it ultimately more effective.
Taking a page from Derek Cianfrance's “The Place Beyond the Pines,” “Monsters and Men” thrillingly becomes a triptych when it introduces a third character, who brings us into the exciting world of Black Lives Matter activism. In this case, it’s Kelvin Harrison, Jr., who plays a future baseball star who is introduced being randomly searched by the police (of which Green is building from his 2015 short, “Stop,” which Collin Souter talked about here). When he watches Manny’s video, and learns from a friend what he can do, this third becomes a type of character study about someone who chooses protesting over his more lucrative passions, even leaning into the Colin Kaepernick integration of sports by the end.
“Monsters and Men” is a movie that complements its passion with a promising vision, showing the people who are affected by a tense racial atmosphere. It’s best when relying on its performers, as these men provide the type of inner debate that “Monsters and Men” too easily simplifies with its script. While we can understand these men, there’s not enough life to them outside of Green’s unmistakable context.
Anthony Mandler's “Monster” plays as an interesting double feature to “Monsters and Men” in part because it is also timely, but its timeliness is not the prime factor behind the storytelling. It’s a crime story that takes place in a racist system, one in which a white prosecutor lawyer can point a finger at his face and call him a “monster” in front of a jury. In its strongest passages, “Monster” is about establishing the humanity of a young black man. But it hardly expands beyond a timely “Law & Order” episode, albeit with more of a focus on racial politics.
Kelvin Harrison Jr. stars in the movie as Steve Harmon, a young black teenager in New York with a love for filmmaking. He’s going under trial for a crime (accomplice to a robbery that turned into murder) that we’re never sure he could do, tied up with people like the aggressive King (ASAP Rocky) whom he had been documenting months before the event. We get a sense pretty quickly of his peaceful family life (with Jeffrey Wright and Jennifer Hudson as his parents) and even his strong passion for movies, all signs pointing towards him not wanting to throw his life away. Mandler’s script, based on the novel by Walter Dean Myers, goes back and forth between the court case and the time that led him to prison. For the most part, “Monster” is a courtroom movie that isn’t challenging so much as it is tense.
Debut director Mandler displays a good balance of his dramatic elements, with tempered character drama before the events in prison, and tight performances from the likes of Harrison, Jennifer Ehle (playing Steve’s defending lawyer) and even Nas as a prisoner with some advice. But the courtroom device shows to be a weight that slows the movie down, and distracts from its initial goal. This movie is about proving that Steve is not the monster that the prosecutor says that he is, and yet the court aspect becomes about proving him simply innocent, which doesn’t exactly match. It’s disappointing, too, to see a side character like King handled with little dimension; although we see that he’s more guilty of the crime, is he not a human being as well?
Mandler nonetheless gives a sharp look to these courtroom scenes, adding in frantic super-cuts when Steve’s emotions are at their highest. Best of all, it has an ending that is more complicated than could be explained during a cross examination. But watching the movie is like witnessing a character study become beholden to exposition, when there’s clearly so much more going on outside the courtroom.
For his directorial debut, writer/director Andrew Heckler takes on an expansive yet shaggy approach to a bizarre true story from the 90’s—Mike Burden was a member of the KKK who helped open a museum dedicated to the Klan, only to later publicly renounce the KKK and work towards renouncing his racism. At 128 minutes and featuring a whole lot of story, it’s certainly one of the most ambitious projects to play the festival, and its idea of people defending Confederate imagery is particularly timely. But its narrative focus leans the movie toward having more of a white-savior complex, even though that does make Garrett Hedlund’s portrayal of Burden a very complicated type of hero.
“Burden” starts with the opening of the KKK museum, the brainchild of leader Tom Griffin (Tom Wilkinson), who has been grooming Andrew and others in his repo business to carry on the legacy of hatred. Many people in the town are upset by the museum, including Reverend Kennedy (Forest Whitaker), who preaches to his parishioners to approach their protests against the museum with love. When the KKK and protestors clash outside the museum, Burden almost kills Reverend Kennedy under Tom’s orders; not firing a sniper rifle turns out to be a small step forward in the movie’s glacial journey towards him renouncing the KKK.
Indeed, the store is just the beginning, as it ultimately focuses on Burden learning to love with the help of his girlfriend Judy (Andrea Riseborough), and accepting the help of Reverend Kennedy when he boldly offers them a home. All the while, he deals with the animosity of the group, and puts Reverend Kennedy’s family in more danger when the KKK find out that where Burden has been living. All of this is told as if it’s all important drama, but there’s a sense that a sharper cut could do this story some better justice.
Heckler’s approach to the story doesn't have a necessary tightness, exploding out the gate with good ol’ boy rock and roll and dumping onto us a lot of characters. There are plenty of side moments too, and events like KKK men terrorizing a young woman on the street, that paint a picture of just how cruel these white men are. But the movie isn’t contained by any strong vision so much as solid performances. Even then, it becomes exhausting as focusing on Burden’s arc proves to be too broad.
Empathizing with a KKK guy is quite the demand from an audience, and sometimes this story feels like that’s more because "Burden" has the aforementioned white-savior complex. It has a slightness towards the black characters in the story, using them mostly as plot points (when Burden beats up a young black man and gets away with it, it’s not mentioned until much later) or for preachiness, as with Whitaker’s emotional yet underwhelming performance.
Still, all least the movie has a captivating focal performer in Garrett Hedlund, who gives one of the most maximum overdrive performances I’ve seen at the festival. He’s constantly swaying back and forth, chewing on his words like it's tobacco, looking down to the ground. Maybe because we spend so much time with him the performance seems repetitive, but Hedlund goes for it here like he rarely has before. Especially in the third act, he vividly expresses through performance the inner process of a man changing his heart and mind.