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“Message movies” can be a tricky proposition. Presenting onscreen the forces of oppression affecting people in the real world is one thing, but doing so with the care and humanity required to make a movie more than just a vessel for an opinion is a more difficult feat. Walking into a Toronto International Film Festival screening of Monsters and Men, the debut feature from Reinaldo Marcus Green about the police shooting of an unarmed black man and the incident’s effect on one Brooklyn, New York, community, I was worried it would be little more than a simplistic take on incredibly serious issues. Thankfully, my worries were proven completely wrong.

Monsters and Men is a film with far more on its mind than a ripped-from-the-headlines message. Strung together as a triptych, with three almost entirely distinct stories, the film — which opens in theaters on Friday — follows three men of color dealing with the impact of the shooting of Darius “Big D” Larson, played by Samel Edwards, a kind-hearted staple of the community selling loose cigarettes on a street corner. In the first story, Hamilton’s Anthony Ramos plays Manny, a young man starting a family and a new job as a downtown office building concierge, who captures the shooting on his phone and then weighs the difficult decision of publishing the footage online and his young family facing the consequences.

The focus then shifts to Dennis, played by BlacKkKlansman’s John David Washington, once again playing a police officer, and having to navigate conflicting loyalties to his family, his department, the black community and the job he genuinely believes in. Finally, the film moves into the sphere of direct activism with high school baseball prospect Zyric, played by young It Comes at Night star Kelvin Harrison Jr., whose father is doing everything he can to get him a ticket to the big leagues, but who is slowly drawn into the protest movement building around the shooting of Big D.

Source: Neon/YouTube

What sets Monsters and Men apart from similar films is its unwillingness to provide easy answers. While the picture’s moral center is clear, Green explores the real difficulty of taking a stand to bring change, the things people have to put on the line and the emotional toll leveled on those who are affected by racism and police violence every day. It’s a film concerned first and foremost with empathy, eschewing sensationalism — the shooting itself is never directly shown on-screen — and instead exploring the internal battles of its characters and illuminating what it really means to live up to one’s moral standards.

I sat down with stars John David Washington and Kelvin Harrison Jr. at the Toronto International Film Festival in September to talk about bringing their rich and complicated characters to life, embodying activism and being part of a new generational call to end racism and oppression in America.

(Editor’s note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)

Mic: The three stories in this film provide each of you guys the chance, separately really, to get into the characters very intimately. I was curious how you approached that, delving into what it means to be those characters, going through what those characters are going through.

Kelvin Harrison Jr.: I guess the biggest transformation point for me was figuring out the sports life and understanding what that means in a community like Brooklyn for a young kid. Talking to [Green], because he was a baseball player when he was 17, and getting his insight and what his relationship with his father was like. Taking pieces of that, taking pieces of my relationship with my dad being a musician from New Orleans, and still being young and trying to figure it out — I think all of that connected and gave me a lot of insight into the burden [my character] was carrying as a young black boy in America, and what that meant to him.

That also seems connected to you playing a police officer, John, the burden of that.

John David Washington: Absolutely. I just wanted to make sure that I didn’t skip any steps. That I was able to be as present and as available as possible, emotionally speaking. And I was able to do that due to the research, because of the information I got from [going on police ride-alongs] and talking to the kids in the community, you know the very kids that I’m trying to protect, and maybe hopefully inspire to be like [my character], as far as the cop world. So all of that was in the soup, and knowing that we had [Green] at the helm, I knew that none of those moments and research were going to be wasted.

Reinaldo Marcus Green’s ‘Monsters and Men’ opens in theaters on Friday.
Reinaldo Marcus Green’s ‘Monsters and Men’ opens in theaters on Friday. Neon/IMDb

You also did BlacKkKlansman, and there’s some overlap in those roles, too, which was really interesting to watch. It was kind of in my head the whole time.

JDW: [Laughs.]

Not in a bad way.

JDW: I was gonna say, “Oh no, I hope not!”

No, no. It’s just wrestling with a really interesting problem in terms of the activism that’s going on, the actual realities on the street, the drama itself.

JDW: An interesting problem, yeah.

That conundrum, is that something you were attracted to?

JDW: Let me tell you, man, I didn’t have a lot of information on one side of the fight. I knew all about the resistance side, I knew all about activism. I didn’t realize you can execute and practice activism on [the police] side as well. You can be for the cause and for the law. I didn’t realize that until the research.

And so both stories inspired me, and I hope they can inspire the youth, the young men and women, so that they don’t just have one view of policing, of protecting and serving. They can see and decide for themselves what they want to be. We’re seeing the evolution of resistance now through a knee or a hashtag, you know what I mean? And we see that at the end of the film through [Harrison’s] character. I think that’s all great. To be a part of that is inspiring and is something that I very much love and appreciate.

A lot of the film is about these big things going on, but there are also personal responsibilities — family, that kind of stuff. Kelvin, your character is obviously dealing with that in a big way. Especially from a young person’s angle, getting into activism, how did you think about what those personal responsibilities mean?

KH: I think that’s the conflict. [Green] and I talked about our parents, and talked about how our dads come from a very specific generation where it was like, “We fought and we got to where we were, and we struggled.” Every black dad’s always talking about how, “I want you to be 10 times better than I am, and you have to work two times as hard as I have. And if I got you here as a single parent” — my dad in the movie — “then I expect you to give back.” You know, it’s like this weird unspoken burden.

JDW: Almost a compensation.

KH: Yeah, “For my sacrifices. I work on this bus every day and I give you so much, I buy you new cleats, I’m giving you all the best, what are you gonna do for me?” It’s this weird kind of unspoken dialogue that happens in the home, and I think [Zyric] at 17 is trying to internalize that and figure out what to do with that, but then also really come of age at that point. He’s going to college and he’s starting to find his voice for himself and figure out what he’s going to do. “What do I believe in? What do I stand for?” That’s that conflict he has to juggle, and I think that’s the conflict a lot of us juggle every day. It’s like, who am I and what do I do, versus the necessities of every day.

John David Washington, right, opposite Anthony Ramos in ‘Monsters and Men’
John David Washington, right, opposite Anthony Ramos in ‘Monsters and Men’ Neon/IMDb

And you’re young guys. You’re playing it in the movie, but you really are that next generation. Is that something you’re thinking about, even in your choice of film projects?

JDW: You know how much pressure that is to think about it like that? To answer your question directly: No.

KH: No.

JDW: Listen, I hope that these stories can inspire one person. They don’t necessarily have to be a black person, they don’t have to be a male either.

Of course.

JDW: Just one person that actually knows what to do, that actually is well-versed, and studied in political science, and of their community. I’ll follow that person, you know what I mean? Tupac said the same thing, if he could inspire one person then he did his job, and that’s how I feel.

KH: Absolutely. What he said.

JDW: We have our reasons for picking roles. I love what I do, I think this is the best job in the world. I think we’re very lucky and privileged to be acting, to be telling stories. There’s some people out here that are doing some real jobs that they don’t even necessarily like, but they’re doing out of necessity. So the fact that we have this luxury, I want to honor it by doing it the right way. To tell stories that at least people can relate to and give people a chance to see themselves and maybe be a little more proud of themselves, give themselves more confidence.

KH: I think what’s so cool about this movie is it reminds us there’s a whole slew of people with very similar experiences and we get to show that humanity. That’s our job, we really get to dig deep into someone’s soul and honestly, vulnerably display that onscreen. I think that’s so beautiful because I get to understand you better from watching something and I get to understand him better, and it connects us all. That’s what it’s all about at the end of the day, bringing us together. Unity.